Category Archives: Life

The Garden, Chapter XV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re amazing, Mom!” he told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring your appetite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

What’s For Dinner?

I don’t believe that anything tastes better than something cooked in the great outdoors or indoors over wood.  There is some sort of magic that can be found when a wood fire applies heat to a pot, pan or skillet preferably, but not exclusively , in the setting of the great outdoors.  The items being cooked are almost irrelevant.  When the meal is set and ready to be consumed it is one of the most heavenly sensations one can imagine.  In fact, I believe that meals in heaven will be cooked on wood burning stoves in cabins in some celestial woods, but that’s just my opinion.

I began my romance with outdoor cooking when I was a very small boy.  When my father was not somewhere in the world on a Navy ship we would frequently pack up our 1950 Studebaker and drive to a campground in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the mountains east of San Diego.  We would leave early in the morning, usually well before the sun would come up, and drive about an hour and a half to the favorite family spot.  Many times we were able to get our very favorite camping space; number 36, I think it was.

Time of year was of no consequence.  My brother Brad and I loved running wild in the rocks and fields and canyons and brush-covered hillsides during the summer, but we equally loved the frozen, ice and snow covered winter landscape as well.  In fact, winter was my favorite as far as food went for a couple of reasons.

First, I loved to make the fire that my mother would use to cook over.  I was a little pyromaniac anyway,  and loved to burn pine needles and dried weeds and junk lumber that my father always seemed to restock in our back yard.  Dad taught me how big a fire ought to be and where it should be placed, and then let me burn all that I wanted.  This scared the crap out of our neurotic neighbor, who once called the fire department on me when I was sitting in front of a small fire one afternoon.  I heard the sirens and thought to myself “Man, that’s close.”  Then I heard the “clump clump clump” of heavy boots on our concrete driveway.  Then, what looked to my twelve year old eyes to be a small army of firemen poured through the gap between our house and garage into the back yard.

“Where’s the fire?”  they demanded.  “This is the only one that I know about” I said, pointing to my little camp-style fire.  The firemen looked at each other with a look that I didn’t recognize then, but as I think back on it I now know all too well that it said “We’ve been punked”.  But there they were.  They were firemen, and I did have a fire going.  So they pulled their big hose with the heavy bronze nozzle into my back yard and blew the hell out of my fire.  I was completely dumbfounded by the whole thing, but my mother put two and two together quickly enough.  I really liked the Mr. who lived next door, but I never had much time for the Mrs. after that.

Anyway, I liked to start fires, so my father would give me one match when we went to the campground and it was my duty to get the fire going so that Mom could get the breakfast started.  During the summer that was a small challenge at best.  In winter however, the pressure was definitely on.  Mom would cook on the big steel and stone camp stoves built by the CCC workers during the Great Depression, and in winter they might be covered three or four inches deep with snow and ice.  Dad would give me wood, a hatchet, a knife, and one paper match and tell me to get the job done.

Challenge accepted!  I would chop away as much ice and snow as I could in order to clear the grill and release the steel door which folded down to give me access to the roughly twelve inch wide by ten inch high by two or three feet deep firebox, where I was tasked with producing a cooking fire thick with glowing hot coals that Mom would use to create a king’s feast.  Using the knife I whittled shavings in increasingly larger size until I had a pile of them.  Next I produced small sticks, again of increasing size, until I had a pile of graded pieces of wood at the foot of the stove.  I carefully arranged my shavings and small sticks in the firebox without the assistance of any paper as a fire starter.  Only wimps used paper to start a fire!

Finally all was prepared and I would strike the one precious match on an emory surface and it would flare with its ignition.  I was patient, allowing that initial flare to settle down into an even flame before I advanced the match into the shavings.  Smoke would curl up through the pile of shavings and chips, and then a tiny flame would be established in the filamentous fuel.

At this point I would drop the match and begin to tend my small and fragile fire.  Bit would be added to bit, slightly larger as the fire gained a foothold in my pile of tinder, and in short order I knew that the fire would be a success.  Sticks were added, and then bigger sticks, until larger chunks of wood were added to make a roaring fire before which numb hands could be warmed, coffee could be brewed, and finally a full breakfast of eggs and bacon, potatoes and ham and grits and whatever one could possibly want could be created by the culinary genius that was my mother.

A glorious outdoor breakfast did not have to be a complicated affair however.  One of my favorite meals ever consumed at that campground was as simple as a meal could possibly be.  When I was very young I tried to win prizes by selling Christmas cards to my neighbors.  A company somewhere produced a catalogue of prizes that could be earned by selling certain amounts of cards, and I signed up and set out to push those little-more-than-average cards on as many neighbors as I could con into buying them.

By hook and by crook I peddled one full shipment of those cards and was given several choices of what prize I could acquire from the catalogue.  I chose a collapsable camp oven.  This thing would fold until it was nearly flat, but when unfolded it formed a metal cube that could be set over a camp fire or a Coleman stove and could be used just like a real oven.  It even had a thermometer on the front that told you the temperature within.

So one early morning my father took me and my best friend Wes to do some fishing on the stream which ran through the campground where we always preferred to go.  The state people stocked trout in that stream and I caught one every now and then, but not on this day.  After freezing our little butts off for an hour or so we returned to the campsite and Dad fired up the Coleman stove.  We were going to have pork and beans for breakfast but Dad had forgotten to bring a can opener, so there we were with a big can of pork and beans and no way to get at them.

My father was nothing if not resourceful.  He knew right away that the beans were a lost cause.  We had canned biscuits however, and so the oven was assembled and the biscuits opened up, lined up in a greased pan, and placed in the oven.  In no time at all the biscuits were withdrawn from the oven and placed on top of that cube in all of their golden brown glory.  Dad then squeezed honey out of a bottle onto the top of the uncooperative bean can and we took turns sopping up honey with our warm biscuits and slamming them down the old hatch.

I believe that our breakfast of biscuits and honey a-la bean can was as good as any meal that I have ever eaten.  I can close my eyes and go right back to that picnic site under the oak trees just off of the parking lot at Green Valley Falls and taste the honeyed sweetness of the soft, warm biscuits that we ate that morning.  My father was a Jekyll and Hyde sort of character; sometimes I hated and feared him and sometimes I loved him. I loved him that morning.  I wish that I could tell him that I love him again.  Perhaps I will sometime.

I will conclude this topic with one more tale of a wood cooked meal, but this one was not cooked out of doors.  One Thanksgiving or Christmas, I’m not sure which one it was, in the year 1974 or 75, again I’m not sure which one, my wife at the time and I drove north from Sonoma County California to Eugene Oregon to share the holiday meal with her friends from high school.  Clarice stayed in touch with her friend Kaye and Kaye’s fiance Carl, and we were invited to do the meal with them that year.

Kaye and Carl lived in a huge victorian house with three or four other couples.  It was a sort of urban commune; a thing rather popular in those days.  Kaye was going to college at the University of Oregon and Carl was a hippy, occasionally working at replanting hillsides where loggers had clear-cut the forest, frequently playing a guitar rather badly, and always ready to roll and share a joint with anybody who was ready to party.  When you are the son of a doctor, life can be easy like that.

Clarice and I left our apartment early in the morning and drove straight through to eugene.  I was raised by me father to drive like an automaton when great distances needed to be covered, so we would have stopped to get gas and pee and buy me another quart of beer and that was about all, so by the time that we arrived at the big victorian house we were both pretty well tied in knots.  We walked the wet and grey streets of Eugene with our friends for a while and then, after a meal of something-or-other and a goodly amount of alcohol and marijuana we turned in for the night.

We slept in quite late the next morning, and when we finally did crawl out of bed the activity in the kitchen was already hot and heavy.  Bert, one of the other residents of the house, was in charge of the stove while his wife Evelyn was in charge of what got cooked on/in the stove.  Evie was cooking a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, yams, rolls, and an assortment of other items on a huge iron wood burning stove in the kitchen.  Breakfast was long past so Clarice and I ate some sandwiches and snacks that we still had in our cooler while we waited for the main event.

Only slightly less impressive than the meal was the process by which it was cooked.  At one point “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” came on the television and we all got appropriately psychedelic to watch it by.  While Willie Wonka was sailing chocolate rivers and Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Jo were floating dangerously close to the huge ventilator fans, saved from being sliced and diced only by releasing their lighter-than-air gas load by frequent belches, we were all drifting between Mars and the asteroid belt, sharing joints and mushrooms and feeling very much a part of the movie.

But every so often some sort of alarm would go off in Bert’s psychedelicized brain and he would arise and go stuff a measured amount of wood into the fire chamber on the side of the oven which housed the turkey that we would soon be devouring.  It was truly uncanny, the way that Bert just knew when another load of wood was needed.  Too much wood and the oven temperatures would spike, and too little would result in the temperature falling below the proper cooking level.  A nice, constant temperature is what was needed, and that temperature was provided by one of the most impressive of stoned slackers that I have even had the privilege to meet.

At last the movie reached its stirring conclusion with Willy and Charlie and Grandpa flying over the city in some sort of cross between an elevator and a telephone booth (younger readers will at least know what an elevator is), and the dinner bell was rung.  Bert and Evie first brought out the turkey, followed by all of the other awesome delicacies that they had cooked and kept warm on shelves over or adjacent to the stove.

Bert carved the bird and we all ate until just before we got sick.  I have to say that it was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten, and even though it was not cooked outside, well, it has to be among the most special of meals because of the 19th century wood stove manner of it’s cooking.  As long as God grants me the blessing of memory, I will never forget those wonderful meals that I have described in this story.  Heaven, for me, will almost certainly contain meals such as these.

God Has A Special Providence—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Can’t Get No Traction

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

Tractor Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m A Fool for the City

The year of our Lord 1976 was not my best year.  The first five months of that year I spent trying to hold together a marriage which was slowly melting down, and the last seven months were mostly lost in a boozy muddle wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke as I self medicated to forget the pain of my failure in that endeavor.  Each day of that last seven months was an undirected jumble of virtually meaningless hours and every night at the residence which I shared with three other people would have looked like a party to any reasonable person, not that there was ever very many reasonable people present in our residence on any given night.  One evening a person who accompanied a  friend of mine apologized for not bringing something to add to the party.  My friend laughed and told him “This isn’t a party.  It’s always like this here.”

That sort of lifestyle eventually either kills you or loses its allure and for me it was the latter, and so as that awful year drew to a close I awoke one morning, put my tools, some clothing and a few valuable items into my truck, and pointed the nose of that vehicle south and east away from Northern California and across Southwest deserts towards Albuquerque New Mexico, where my brother Bart lived.  I needed to restart my life and returning to my family seemed like the right place to get that journey underway.

Albuquerque is a very different kind of place than any that I had ever lived in before however, and it didn’t take very long after my arrival to find out just how different it was.  I actually felt like I had fallen into a crack between two universes and had emerged in some bizarre facsimile of the normal one I had inhabited up until I pulled into the city limits.  My introduction to this odd new universe came quickly when Brad announced on my first day there that he was going to K-Mart to buy some item which he needed for a construction project at his house.  I climbed into his truck and we were soon standing in one of the construction supply aisles near the rear of the building.  We were not alone however.  A few yards in front of us an argument was taking place between a young woman and a young man.

“I don’t know why you are saying that.  None of it is true” said the young woman.

“Don’t lie to me” replied the young man, spitting the words out between clinched teeth.  “You think I’m stupid?  or that I don’t have ears or eyes?  You’re nothing but a puta”

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Southwest, ‘puta’ is not a very nice thing for a woman to be called.

“Don’t call me that” she hissed at her accuser.  “I haven’t done anything wrong.  I don’t know why you’re making this up.”  The young man remained unconvinced.

“I’m not making anything up.  I saw you with Joe with my own eyes.  Are you saying that I’m blind, puta?”

“I said don’t call me that.  Me and Joe are friends and that’s all.  We’ve been friends for a long time.  You’re just trying to make something out of nothing.”

“I know you and Joe are friends.  Good friends, too.  You looked real friendly when I saw you get into the back seat of his car.  Maybe if I had stayed around longer I would have seen your heels in the window too, puta.”

This was as far as the girl was willing to let the young man go, and she lashed out with a vicious right hook that would have made Mike Tyson proud.  The young man’s glasses flew off of his face and spun through the air, landed on the floor and skidded to a stop at the feet of Brad and me.  Brad had found the item that he needed so we quickly did an about face and walked up another aisle towards the check out stand at the front of the store.  While Brad was paying we heard the quavering voice of a female in distress paging the store manager to the employee break room.  My guess is that the young man at that same moment was applying something warm and wet to the left eye that was swelling shut and already beginning to blacken.

I was completely blown away by the this event and as we arrived at Brad’s truck I asked “What the hell did we just see?”  “Oh, that’s no big thing here” Brad replied.  “You’ll get used to it”.  The funny thing is that I did get used to it, mostly because one odd event after another seemed to blend into the pattern of a unique personality of the city.  The next wrinkle of that personality was to make itself known to me before very much water in the Rio Grande passed underneath the I-40 Bridge.

My friend Wes showed up at Brad’s house two days after I did and all three of us strapped on our tools and began to hang drywall for a local contractor.  It was the dead of winter and Albuquerque sits at 5,000 feet above sea level.  Winter storms are not common there, but they do occasionally come and when they do they can bring significant amounts of ice and snow.  The three of us were working on the east side of the city one day when the grey clouds rolled in and began to drop snow while we were occupied inside of a building.  By the time that we noticed the weather there was a layer of snow an inch or two thick on the ground already and more was falling as we stood there.  Brad declared that we should quit and begin to make our way to his house on the west side of the city, as far away from where we were standing as we could and yet remain in the same city.

We stowed our tools in the back of Brad’s truck and he began to steer the vehicle slowly and carefully down the whitened streets, first stopping to procure a couple of cases of beer in case we were snowed in.  Many others had the same idea and there was an additional inch or two of snow on the streets when Brad completed his purchase and began to do the best imitation of a tip-toe in a half ton truck that I have ever seen.  Slowly and carefully he navigated the gentle hill which dropped into the South Valley where his house was, still many miles away.

Now at this point I have to explain something about the tires on many of the vehicles in Albuquerque.  New Mexico is a dry place, and Albuquerque is more dry than many other parts of that state.  Without a lot of rain and snow and ice to make the need for good tread on one’s tires obvious it is easy to become lazy and not replace a tire until it is a good deal past far gone.  Many of the tires in Albuquerque are simply bald, and bald tires plus ice and snow are a bad, bad mix.

And a bad mix they were on this particular day.  Brad and Wes and I were rolling slowly down Second Avenue, enjoying a few beers before actually arriving at Brads house (I am not advocating this behavior; I am simply reporting it) when Brad noticed a large American car – all American cars were large in those days – coming up behind us at a much higher rate of speed that we were going.  The first that Wes and I were aware that there was a drama about to unfold was when Brad said “Uh Oh, this probably is not going to end well,” and he began to slow down a little bit more to increase his maneuverability in case things went horribly bad.

The car behind us, driven by a young man with his wife or more likely girl friend beside him, pulled into the oncoming lane in order to pass us.  When he attempted to straighten the trajectory of his car the slick, bald tires allowed not an iota of traction however and the car continued on in the new path which the driver had just initiated.  That path took the car and its passengers across the oncoming lane, down into a low and somewhat broad ditch, up a railroad embankment which paralleled Second Avenue, and back down the embankment to settle in the bottom of the ditch.  While this was happening the car began to turn a lazy half circle so that it came to rest with the front of the car pointing towards us as we continued our slow, careful pace up on the road where we wanted to stay and the now hopelessly stuck driver wished that he still was.

The whole thing seemed like some slow motion dance.  The car making it’s lazy arc up and down the railroad embankment, narrowly missing a road sign in the process; the female passenger already giving the driver hell before we passed them by; it was like an opera without the music.  There was not one thing that we could do to help in those days before cell phones, but Second Avenue was a busy street and we knew that a police cruiser and a tow truck were in this gentleman’s immediate future, so we drove on laughing so hard that we almost wet ourselves.

A final tale (and I could tell many more) featuring the peculiarities of Albuquerque came a year later, when I was back in town following the construction trades.  Brad took me to Chuck’s Lounge, a bar and pizza place on Central Avenue in the heart of the city.  There was always a diverse crowd in Chuck’s due to its proximity to the University of New Mexico a few blocks away up Central and two interstate highways just a short distance west and north.  They also made some very good pizza.  On this particular night one could see sandals and boots, headbands and cowboy hats, paisley shirts and big shiny belt buckles and every manner of clothing and personal grooming styles you can imagine.  I was there for the pizza because they made the best green chili, pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  Actually, they make the ONLY green chili and pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  I was interested only in the pizza and not the other clientele who were enjoying Chuck’s hospitality that night.

All of that changed in one instant however.  Unnoticed by anyone in the building, a man entered the front door with a handgun of some unknown calibre looking for the person who was fooling around with his wife, and his wife too if she happened to be so unlucky as to be there that evening.  This person bellowed out a name which nobody responded to, which prompted the man to discharge a bullet into the roof to make himself perfectly clear.  At this point everyone in the joint hit the floor or took cover behind whatever they could find.  Nobody bolted for the exit because that would put them into clear sight and might suggest to the cuckolded shooter that he might be the guilty party.

The armed man peered under tables and around bar stools and decided that the Casanova whom he was in search of was not going to be found in Chuck’s that night.  At that point he pulled out his wallet and laid a wad of bills on the bar, apologized for disrupting everyone’s evening, instructed the bartender to set everyone up as far as the wad of bills on the bar would go, and took his leave to search for his wife and her lover elsewhere.

Brad and I crawled out from under our table and found to our delight that very little beer had slopped out of our glasses as we dove for cover.  We finished our pizza and beer, paid up, and departed shortly after the incident.  Chuck called the police, since he would probably have heard about it if he had not, and they showed up just before we left.  There was no sense of urgency shown by the police since nobody was hurt.  The officers took a description and seemed to know who their suspect was, and we all got to leave without a great deal of fuss and to-do.

These are three of a great many stories that I could write about life in Albuquerque.  I found that city and state to be unlike any others, and I frankly enjoyed their quirky if somewhat dangerous personality.  I live far away from Albuquerque now and my family has also moved on, so I have little likelihood of seeing that city again.  I still keep it in my mind and heart however, and that will simply have to do.