Category Archives: marriage and divorce

The Garden Chapter XXIII

Charlie was sitting in the fourth row in the auditorium, two rows in front of Maureen and Jack and five seats to their left.  He had arrived early and waited impatiently in front of Loolooska High School in Gresham, on the Oregon side of the river, watching as proud mothers and fathers and bored siblings accompanied a herd of boys and girls who were wearing suits and dresses.  No doubt, those children would provide the afternoon’s entertainment.  Charlie had continually scanned the incoming crowd, wondering how he would react when he saw his ex wife and son, and how they would react when they saw him.  At last, as teachers began to lead a number of the younger students backstage, and parents and other family members began to file into the building in order to find their seats, the familiar faces of Jack and Maureen appeared at the side of the auditorium, walking toward him.

Charlie’s heart skipped a beat or two when he saw them.  Jack was taller than his mother, and probably almost as tall as Charlie.  He walked with a confident air, almost a swagger, and his face projected a nonchalance that suggested that this was a day just like any other.  Maureen walked by his side and, once she saw Charlie, locked her face into an expressionless mask.  Jack, once he made eye contact, allowed something that looked like a smirk to play across his face.

“Oh, God in heaven” Charlie thought.  “This is the biggest fucking mistake of my life.”  He felt an urge to turn around and run, not walk, away from this place, but he thought of D’Andra, LuAnn, Billy and Rachael, who had all supported his decision to proceed with the project.

And also about Carolyn.   “You don’t seem to be yourself tonight” She had told him after he met with her at four o’clock the previous Wednesday.  “Is everything alright?”

They had retired to an Indian restaurant after concluding their business, which consisted of a medium-sized and somewhat decrepit strip mall that was for sale at a very good price.  Carolyn had made an offer which, if accepted, would give her the equity necessary to secure a loan that would allow for the old and worn half of of the mall to be torn down and replaced and the rest renovated, with the whole of it potentially turning into a very comfortable income property.

Carolyn’s instincts were acute, as usual, and Charlie’s experience filled in the gaps here and there and allowed Carolyn the comfort of confidently making what she could consider a very good deal.  They were now celebrating the potential acquisition that could make her very well off, if all things went according to plan, and provide a project which, along with the apartment remodel, could keep Charlie’s new crew busy for the rest of summer and fall.

“Well, not really” Charlie answered.  “It’s beginning to sink in that I’m going to be seeing my son and ex wife in five days.  The prospect of that stirs up memories and poses ‘what if’s’ that I sort of wish I didn’t have to think about.”

Carolyn thought about that, shifting gears from her business and it’s potential triumph and focusing her attention on Charlie.  “Oh, I forgot about that.  I imagine it’s a very hard thing to prepare for.  There’s nothing that I know of that I can say to give you comfort about this, so I’ll just say that I am in your corner.  I hope that this turns out well for you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “That means a lot.  I’m more nervous and confused than I thought I’d be.  I really don’t know what in the world is about to happen, or how it will affect my life.”

“Well, I hope that it results in you getting close to your son.  That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“Yes” Charlie agreed.  “That’s the point.  That’s the ‘main thing’ as one friend described it.  But it’s become more complicated, maybe.”

“More complicated?” Carolyn asked.  “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that this process, which was intended to put me back into a relationship with Jack, will by necessity put me into some sort of contact with my ex wife.”

Carolyn waited for Charlie to elaborate, which he did not do.  She pushed a piece of eggplant around in a pile of savory rice until she decided that he wasn’t going to complete his thought.  “So, Charlie, what’s the matter with being in contact with your ex wife?”

It was Charlie’s turn to push a piece of chicken around in the few vegetables that remained on his plate.  “Maybe I should just lay it out for her to see the whole picture” he thought, but then he thought “No, are you crazy?  You might trash a very productive partnership!  But what about your heart, fool?  You’ve bullshit yourself your entire life.  Why don’t you be real for a change?  Because ‘real’ can blow shit up like an atomic bomb!  Can’t you ever leave well enough frikkin’ alone?”

     The battle raged in Charlie’s mind and the effort of it played on his face.  Carolyn put down her fork and sat silently, waiting for whatever was to come from the struggle going on in Charlie’s agitated mind.  At last he put down his own fork, drained the Vietnamese Tiger Beer, and looked directly into Carolyn’s eyes.

“I’m dealing with the possibility that Maureen might want to return into marriage with me, for Jack’s sake, of course.”

Carolyn’s face didn’t change; not one iota.  Or did it?  If anything, it set a little more rigidly, but that could just be his imagination.  After a moment she spoke.

“That would be good, wouldn’t it Charlie?  I mean, putting a family back together is usually thought to be good.”

“Yeah, that’s what they say” he replied.  “And that’s what I would do, if it came to that.  For Jack’s sake, at least.”

Silence fell again.  Charlie fidgeted with his empty beer bottle and Carolyn caught the waiter’s eye.  With hand signals she called for refills of their drinks.

“For Jack’s sake” she echoed.  “Yes, Jack is the point of all of this, isn’t he?”

“Yes” Charlie replied.  “He is, and that’s what makes this wonderful and what makes it hard, too.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“I mean, it’s wonderful because I set out to do this thing and, against a whole lot of odds, it looks like it’s about to happen; about to start, anyway.  Of course, I have no idea how it will progress beyond this Sunday, or if it will progress at all, for that matter, but I’ve learned that I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Charlie stopped talking when the waiter brought their drinks, and then began to fidget with the new full bottle of beer rather than continue his train of thought.  After a short period of silence Carolyn took the initiative to get the conversation rolling again.  “And what about the hard part?” she asked.  “As if any of it hasn’t been hard.”

Charlie stopped picking at the label and put the bottle down on the table.  He drew a little cleansing breath and the looked again directly at Carolyn.

“I was given some good advice when I began this project” he said to her.  “‘What’ll I say to him, or to Maureen, if I even get in touch with them?’ I asked some people.  I believe that you were one of those people.  ‘Tell them the truth’ was the good advice that those people gave me.  I have tried to take that advice so far and will continue to do so.  Now, I’m going to continue that policy with you.  I hope that this doesn’t damage our relationship, but telling any less than the truth wouldn’t enhance it, so here goes.

I would be wise to renew my marriage with Maureen if that extremely unlikely opportunity should ever present, for all of the obvious reasons.  It would be very painful for me to do that however for the single reason that I feel myself becoming more and more attracted to you.”

Charlie felt his face turning red at this point, but he pressed on.  “I feel sort of like a seventeen year old kid just now.  Forgive me if I’m stumbling a little about this, but it’s hard for me to feel like I’m saying it correctly.  I don’t want to let ambiguity be the guiding principle however.  I don’t know how you feel about this, or me for that matter, but I can’t pretend that what I feel isn’t real and I won’t lie about it.  I hope that our relationship can grow to more than it is now, but at the same time I also hope that if that’s not possible, then it won’t change to become something less.

But a renewal of my marriage to Maureen, which I repeat is highly unlikely under any circumstance but which I would nevertheless do, and do with a whole heart for the sake of my son, would end even the possibility that I might further develop a relationship with you, if such a thing is possible, and that thought is very hard for me to deal with.

So there it is; the plain truth.  I know, it’s not very romantic.  I’ve daydreamed about telling you this in a manner something more like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, but I’m afraid that’s just about the best that I can do.”

Charlie sat back in the booth, picked up his beer and took a long drink, trying to lubricate his throat which had suddenly become as parched as sand.  Carolyn said nothing.  Charlie felt like fidgeting with his beer bottle again but fought the urge.  Carolyn raised her glass to her own lips and took a sip of her drink.  At last Charlie couldn’t restrain himself any longer and began to pick at the label of his beer.  Carolyn reached over the table and gently removed the bottle from his hands and set it down.  Charlie looked up over the bottle at Carolyn as she began to speak.

“Charlie, that’s the most romantic thing that I’ve ever heard.”  He looked confused, and she then continued.  “You just told me that you care about me and want to have a relationship with me, but your love for your son and sense of duty to him could force you to possibly give up a chance for that to happen.  Oh, my God!  You’ve told me that you have feelings for me, and only the power of a man’s love for his son can prevent you from hoping to see what those feelings for me could grow into; that you would give up your hope of happiness with me only for the love of your son.  Charlie, a girl could live a couple of lifetimes and never hear such an expression from such a good man as you are!  Cary Grant never said anything like that to Grace Kelly, and I know this for a fact.  I’ve seen every movie that either one of them made and I never heard anything like that.

Charlie, I have been developing feelings for you as well, and that is something that surprises me very much.  I could not imagine somebody taking the place of my husband.  In fact, the thought is still difficult to comprehend.  But I will put those feelings that I have for you on hold indefinitely, and I don’t foresee any change in our current relationship – business or friendly – as this situation develops.  Your faithfulness to your son is the most important thing here, and I will support that with a whole heart.”

Disappointment, desire, relief, and hope all danced an intricate minuet on Charlie’s face as he tried to digest what Carolyn had just told him, but while his face was busy, his mind struggled to put two coherent thoughts together.  Carolyn, at last, took pity on him.  She reached back across the table, took Charlie’s hand, and gently wrapped his fingers around the bottle of beer.  “Here” she said.  “Drink this before it gets warm, and let’s talk more about a schedule for the project in Orchards.

Charlie sat in his auditorium seat, thinking alternately of Carolyn’s comments and what he might say to Jack after the recital.  That event had progressed from young children playing pieces barely more advanced than ‘Chopsticks’ to a very simple version of Für Elise.  Jack, being one of the two or three most advanced students, would be performing at or near the end of the recital, which gave Charlie time to let his thoughts drift from Carolyn to other things.

He reflected that Maureen had not exuded one bit of warmth when she and Jack walked up to Charlie in front of the auditorium.  “Hello, Maureen” he had said to her.  “It’s good to see you again.”  And then he turned to Jack and observed “You’re as tall as your mother!  It’s really good to see you again, too.”

Jack had said nothing in reply.  Maureen merely said “It will start soon.  We have seats already.  You had probably better get one before the good ones are gone.”

She and Jack then turned and walked into the building, and Charlie was left standing under the sun to decide if he would follow them in or simply walk back to his truck.  The truck lost that debate, but only by the barest of margins, and now he was in his seat close to the stage.  He had no idea where Maureen and Jack were sitting at the time and did not immediately look around to find out.  Almost by accident he had noticed that they were not far away.

Charlie eventually found that he was enjoying the music as it got more advanced, and he began to think more about that than of his tangled and tentative relations with Jack and Maureen and, well, life in general.  Billy had introduced him to Chopin, and now he was listening to music at night that had been composed by a variety of people.  Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven he had heard of before, but Borodin, Lizst, Enesco and others had created music that was healing to Charlie’s soul.  The music that he was beginning to hear this day was progressing in complexity, and Charlie gave it more and more of his attention.

At a point half way through the recital an intermission was scheduled.  After it was announced from the stage, people began to rise and head towards restrooms and a concession area in the lobby of the auditorium.  Charlie looked towards Jack and Maureen’s seats and found them to be empty.  Feeling like he could use a cup of coffee, he left his seat and joined the throng.  “I could use a shot of Billy’s whisky more” Charlie thought, “but coffee will have to do for now.”

The line for coffee was not long and soon Charlie had a cup in his hand.  The coffee was free, with only a donation requested.  He sipped the coffee and decided quickly that the cost was an accurate reflection of the quality, and he stepped outside in order to find someplace where he could discreetly dump it on the ground.  To his surprise, he came face to face with Maureen.

They both stopped dead in their tracks, neither one speaking a word.  Seconds passed, and Charlie decided that this whole affair was not going well, and that it would have to change or he would withdraw from it altogether.  “This coffee is awful” he finally said lamely.  “There’s not much that I can’t drink, but this fits right into the middle of that category.”

He turned to empty his cup on the ground by some bushes.  “If she’s gone when I turn back around, I’m walking to the truck and getting the hell out of here” he thought.  He took longer to pour out his coffee than was necessary, and then he turned back around.  Maureen was still standing there.  Charlie drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and then stepped back in front of his ex wife.

“Maureen” he said.  “I’ll not pretend that this isn’t awkward, well, actually more than awkward, for all of us.  I admit, I thought about saying how nice it was to see you, how good you look, or ask how you’ve been doing, blah blah blah.  You know, all of that small talk stuff.  I guess I did that a little when I mentioned how tall Jack has become.  You probably already knew that Jack is growing and didn’t need my observations to confirm that fact, so that was a little bit stupid and predictable.

Well, what I really want to say, to you at least, is that my intentions are exactly what I said they are.  I am not here to pry into your life; of either of your lives, for that matter.  I just want to find out if there’s some way that I can still be a father to Jack.  If this is going to cause pain or problems to you – either of you – just tell me and I will drive away right now.”

Maureen was silent as she digested what Charlie had said to her.  At last her face softened, or so it seemed to Charlie, and she replied.  “Charlie, I’m sorry that you didn’t get a better reception from me.  I can’t speak for Jack, but it hurt more seeing you than I thought it would.  I don’t know how he felt; he’s been a little bit of a closed door to me for some time now.  I think that it’s hard for him too however.  We cried a lot together before he began to draw away from me, so I think it must have been hard for him today too.”

Charlie thought about Billy’s metaphor of putting fingers into bleeding arteries.  Here was one standing in front of him, and he wondered what to do.  How could he put pressure over the wound?  It occurred to him suddenly that he was not there as a medic; the metaphor only went so far.  He couldn’t fix everything, so he just had to plow ahead and do the best that he could.

“We’ve all been through hell” Charlie began, “and I wish that I had a magic wand that I could use to fix things up.  I’m all out of magic wands though.  I’ve just barely held myself together until last spring, when things started to get turned around for me.  I don’t really know what I’m doing or even how I’ll do it.  IF I get a chance to do it.  But I feel strongly that I have a duty to fulfill towards Jack, and that by doing that duty I might generate some health for both of us.  Maybe for all of us, actually.”

“Maybe so” Maureen replied.  “I came to believe something like that might be possible, or I wouldn’t have agreed to this.  But I’m being cautions,  I don’t know you anymore.  Not really.  We’ve been apart for two years, and more than two years if we want to be honest.  Perhaps you are a different person now.  It seems to me like you might be, but even so, who is that different person?  The last one messed me up pretty good, so I’ll not be too quick to get entangled with the new version.”

“That makes sense” Charlie said.  “It hurts like hell, but it makes sense.  You are wise to approach this in such a way.  I’ll do my best to be as open and honest about who I am as I can, but for now we probably had better return to the recital.  I don’t want to be stepping on some proud parent’s toes when their Johnny or Susie is playing ‘Moon River.’”  Maureen smiled at that and agreed.”

“Where is Jack, anyway?” Charlie asked as they reentered the building.

“He went backstage” she replied.  “He calls it ‘putting his game face on.’  He’s serious about his music and gets into some kind of a zone when he plays.  I think it’s the place where he goes to get away from things.”

“Oh, I never even picked up a program!” Charlie said.  “Is he playing last?”

“Next to last” Maureen answered.  “There’s a girl who he competes with who’s last today.  They battle for last place – which is first place really – at every recital that they both attend, and it’s about a fifty-fifty proposition.  She’s really good, and gives him a run for his money.”

‘What’s he playing today?”

“It’s called a nocturne.”

“Nocturne?” Charlie asked.  “By Chopin?”

“Yes” Maureen answered.  “I’m surprised that you know of him.”

“Yeah, I’ve been listening to some music lately.  My roommate is quite a fan.  Do you know which Nocturne?”

“Not really.  I’ve got a program here though.”  Maureen unfolded a single sheet of paper that she had stowed in her purse and looked on the back.  “It’s Number 2”

“Opus 9” Charlie added.

“Yes” Maureen replied, clearly astonished by Charlie’s familiarity with the music.  “How did you know – – -, well, we had better get back to our seats” she said.

Charlie returned to his seat feeling much better about the way that things were progressing.  Maureen had opened up and allowed civil conversation.  That was probably enough for one visit by itself.  Now it was a matter of waiting for the recital to be finished and then beginning the process with Jack.  Charlie sat back in his chair and let the music play through his head, simply enjoying the increasingly advanced pieces, mistakes and all.  “I wonder what that girl will play” Charlie thought.

That girl played ‘Malagueña,’ a piece of music composed by a Cuban pianist, and it was of sufficient complexity that it deserved to be played last.  The young woman performed flawlessly and everyone, including Jack, rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation when she struck the concluding chords with authority.  Charlie made contact with Maureen’s eyes and signaled that he would meet them outside.  He then shuffled along at the speed of the herd of parents, performers and their siblings, and finally found Jack and Maureen waiting outside.

“That was amazing, Jack”  Charlie said as he walked up to them.  “I haven’t heard that piece played better.  You really nailed it.”

“Oh, really?” Jack replied.  “So you’ve been listening to a lot of Chopin lately?”

“Yeah, I’ve been listening to a little” he replied, overlooking the snark in Jack’s voice.  “Hey, let’s go and get some food.  Did you say The Iguana Feliz?” Charlie asked Maureen.

“Yes, it’s just down Grandison, about seven or eight blocks and on the right.”

“I know where it is.  I’ll see you all there in a few minutes, OK?”

They agreed to that and Charlie walked to his truck.  He fired it up and drove it slowly out of the parking lot, inching it along in order to avoid running over any of the little people who were prone to dash about once released from the agony of having to listen to brothers or sisters and others play the piano on a perfectly beautiful Northwest day.  He waited for a break in the traffic and bolted into a left turn onto Grandison, through a gap that was smaller than safety would normally allow.  He was anxious to get to the restaurant and let the process begin.  Soon he was parked and walking into the front door of the restaurant.  The place was crowded but, to his surprise, Jack and Maureen already had a booth.

“I can’t believe that you beat me here” Charlie said as he walked up to them.  “You must have let Jack drive.”

The quip fell flat.  “I’m fourteen, Charlie.  I don’t drive yet.”

Charlie was set back by Jack’s remark.  He had meant it as a harmless joke, and he didn’t particularly like being called by his first name by his son.  “Pick the battles that count” he told himself, “if you have to pick any battles at all.”

“I know, son.  It’s just a joke.”  He slid onto the bench seat next to Maureen.  He was here to connect with Jack, if that was ppossible, so he wanted to face him.  “So, what’s good here?”

Jack was silent, and Maureen spoke to fill the awkward silence.  “Jack likes the carnitas tacos.”

“What do you like?   Charlie asked of Maureen.

“I’m fond of the fish tacos” she replied.

“So, can I order those things for you two?” Charlie asked, looking first at Jack, then at Maureen.  Jack shrugged his shoulders, which Charlie took to be at least a ‘why not,’ and Maureen nodded her assent.

The waitress came to take their orders and Charlie said “Tres tacos de carnitas para el joven, dos de pescado para la señora, y para mi chili verde.”  The waitress was obviously pleased to hear the Anglo ordering their meal in her native tongue.  Charlie ordered the drinks and she swished away through to crowd to place their order.

“I didn’t know that you spoke Spanish” Maureen said.

“Yeah, a little.  I worked with a lot of Hispanic construction teams and learned enough to get by.

“That was pretty awesome” Jack said.  I’d like to learn some Spanish.  Maybe next year.

“I find it to be useful, even a little bit fun”  Charlie replied.  “And getting back to what we were talking about at the recital, that was a very good job on that nocturne.  I’ve listened to most of them; Chopin’s Nocturnes, I mean.  I downloaded a set performed by Brigitte Engerer.  You heard of her?”  Jack shock his head.  “She was a Tunisian born French pianist, and I love the touch that she has with Chopin.  You know, that girl rocked Malagueña, but the touch that you displayed in Number 2 was every bit as deft as the passion that she expressed through her piece.  I’m really impressed.”

“Wow!” Jack said, and this time without a bit of snark in his voice.  “When DID you start liking music?”

“I’ve always liked music” Charlie lied, and then he remembered his friends’ advice that he be nothing but truthful with Jack and Maureen.  “But I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more lately, since I moved in with my roommate.  I was always the big shot contractor, but now I have time to cultivate a taste for other things.  Billy turned me on to classical music and I’m really enjoying it.  Did you know that Chopin was Polish, but that he didn’t have a country?”

Jack was beginning to warm up to the thread of the conversation, while Maureen sat in her corner of the booth with surprise all over her face.

“What do you mean he didn’t have a country?  He was Polish.

“Yes, there were Polish people but there wasn’t a Poland then.  It had been divided up between Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  A lot of Poles fought for Napoleon, hoping that he would restore Poland, but he didn’t do it.  While the Poles were out in their own wilderness, their musicians, writers and poets spoke, played and sang to the heart of the people.  Chopin was one of the greatest of these.”

“That’s awesome, Dad!” Jack said, and then continued the conversation.  “Napoleon screwed a lot of people over.  Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony in honor of him, but changed his mind about it before it was finished.  I don’t know why.”

“Me neither, but maybe it was because Beethoven was German, and the Germans were one of the people who were sticking it to the Poles.”

“Naw” Jack replied.  “There wasn’t really a Germany yet, and Beethoven was from one of the western German states while Prussia was in the east, although he did die in Vienna, so maybe it was an Austrian thing.”

“You know, you may be right about that.  The Austrians turned on Napoleon first chance that they got.”

“So, Jack asked.  “How come you know all of this stuff?  This doesn’t have much to do with building houses and collecting rents.”

“You’re right.  Music is not at all like building houses and collecting rents.  But I don’t do as much of that as I used to, although I still am busy in the trades.  I’ve just found that there’s value in slowing down and enjoying some of the other things of life.  Besides, my roommate is pretty smart and knows a lot about this stuff.”

“Who’s your roommate?” Jack asked.  “Is she pretty?”

Charlie could see Maureen’s face redden at that moment, but he spoke quickly to defuse any possible reaction from her.  “HE’s really not pretty at all.  Well, I guess he’s kind of cute, in a G.I. Joe sort of way.  I guess you’d have to ask a woman about that.  He’s a veteran that I met through another friend.  He was wounded in Iraq and is getting ready to go back to school.  He’s one of the smartest guys I know.”

“He was in Iraq?  Cool!  I bet he has some crazy stories to tell.  I think maybe I want to join the Army when I’m eighteen.  Or maybe the Marines.”

Charlie thought for a moment about Walt and Billy, and about the bombs and machine guns and prisoners with most of their heads eaten away.  He thought about their trip to the forest to try and see some elk that nearly turned into a gun battle between a game warden and two damaged soldiers.  Charlie wanted to shout “Are you crazy?”  Instead, he said “He has stories to tell, but he is not very quick to tell them.  Maybe it would be good for you to hear some of them sometimes, so that you have a more clear picture of what the military can be about.  Military service is honorable, but there’s a cost.  Maybe some time, if your mother approves of course,” he nodded at Maureen, “I can introduce you to Billy.  Whether he tells you any stories or not, I can’t predict.”

“That would be awesome, Dad” Jack said.  “So, do you have a girlfriend?”

The question caught Charlie almost flat-footed.  “Who taught you to be so direct?” he asked his son with a laugh.

“You did” Jack replied.  “You never know when everything’s going to go to pot, so I don’t have time for B.S.”

“Touché” Charlie said.  “And ‘NO,’ I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“A boyfriend?”

Maureen turned bright red this time, but Charlie laughed out loud.  “No, pipsqueak” he said with a big grin.  This was like talking with the guys at the Smelly Socks.  “I don’t have a boyfriend.  Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?  Or a boyfriend, for that matter.  I’m not judging.”

“No to both, but I’ve got the serious hots for Maria.”

“Maria?”

“The girl who played the last piece” Maureen interjected, trying to become a part of the conversation.

“Ah, I’ll bet that she knows that.  It explains the passion in her playing.  She was showing off and telling you how she feels.  Well, you’re going to fall flat as a pancake if you try to woo her with your morose Nocturne.”

“Opposites attract” Jack replied.  “And besides, I have a little ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ in me.”

The food arrived at this time and banter and serious talk about music and girlfriends and wounded veterans was spaced around bites of the quite delicious food.  After they were finished eating Jack announced that he was going to walk home, as they lived not far from the restaurant.  Jack rose out of his seat and Charlie got up too.

“Jack” Charlie began. “It’s been really good to see you.  If you are OK with it, I would like to stay in touch with you and your mother.  I’ll be going fishing with Blly when his schooling permits, and if you’d like to speak with him I’m sure that he could tell you a lot about being in the Army, although once again, he may not share too many stories about his actual service.”

“Yeah, that would be cool, Dad.  You know, you’re all right.  I didn’t think you would be, but you are.”

Charlie nearly choked on that.  He could feel his eyes beginning to fill and had to take a moment to make sure that his voice didn’t waver on him.  “I’ve been learning how to hug people and I would like to give you one.  If that’s too weird for you, a handshake would be fine.”

Jack extended his hand.  Charlie grasped it and, to his surprise, Jack pulled him into an embrace.  “It’s cool, Dad.  People do hug.”  After a long embrace, Jack stepped back, said “See ya,” and walked out the door.  Charlie watched him leave and then turned to Maureen.  He sat in Jack’s seat so that he could face her.

“Well, I didn’t believe that it would work out that well” he said.

“Nor I” Maureen agreed.  “He’s not been that open for a while.  I know the music thing really spoke to him.”

“I hoped that it would.  I learned a lot from my roommate, about music and a lot of other things.  He really is a pretty smart guy.”

“Well, I hope that you discourage this Army thing that he brought up.  I don’t need to see my son march off to a war.”

“Don’t worry.  That’s the last thing that I want.  Believe me, Billy will say nothing to make it look glamorous.  He got torn up pretty badly, and in some ways he still is.”

“Well, that’s good.  I mean that he won’t encourage Jack, not about him being torn up.  We can talk about future contact later.  I have to get going now myself.  Oh, but there’s something else that I want to bring up before I go.”

“Yes?” he asked.  “What is that?”

“Uh, well, I am fine with you and Jack getting connected.  I really am.  And I can see that you are changed.  You seem to be in a better place than I’ve seen you in a long time.”  She laughed at that.  “Not that I’ve seen you in a long time.”  Then she became serious again.

“Charlie, I want you to know up front that I am not interested in resuming much of a relationship with you.  I’m just beginning to get my own head together and I am in a relationship with another person.  That was hard to do, because I could only see you for a long time.  I finally began to see Carl for who he is, and I think I am on my way back to happy.  So, if you had any such ideas, I want you to know clearly that I am not interested in that.  I can see that you are a good person but I’ve moved on, and I intend to keep it that way.”

Charlie was so happy to hear that that he could have reached across the table and kissed Maureen.  “I’m really glad for you, Maureen” he said.  “I admit that the thought of you with somebody else gives me a flutter or two in my gut, although I have no right to feel that.  I assure you that there’ll be no interference from me.  I’m real busy trying to rebuild my own life, and I’m happy to hear that you’re doing so too.  Between us, I hope that we can still provide a family for Jack, even if it’s a separated one.”

“So do I, Charlie, and I want you to know that I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for you, even if it didn’t look very much like it when we saw you earlier.”

“Don’t worry about that” Charlie replied.  “It was hard for all of us, but it was worth it.”  Charlie looked at his watch and said “I guess I should be going too.  I have some things to attend to on the other side of the river.  Maureen, it has been really good to see you again, and that’s not just some lame social convention.  I wish – – -, no.  I’ll not go there.  It’s just good to see you again.  Let’s stay in touch.  Does Jack have a phone?  If he wants, we can exchange numbers.

Maureen and Charlie rose from the booth and he walked with her to her car.  When she unlocked the door Charlie extended his hand to her.  “I think a handshake is the best goodbye for now.  Holding you, even for a moment, might be too painful, for me at least.”

“I believe that you’re right” Maureen replied.  She took Charlie’s hand and shook it.  “Goodbye for now, Charlie Hamer.  It has been a pleasure to see you again.  Until the next time, as circumstances permit.”

Charlie said “I would like that,” and let go of her hand.  He watched Maureen drive out of the lot, and an old ache welled up in his heart.  He really had loved that woman, even if he did a lousy job of showing it, and failed miserably when the bad times came.  The thought of her with another man was hard to take, but that triggered thoughts of his own incipient relationship with Carolyn.  Maureen had obviously progressed in her new life further than Charlie had.  That was a shortcoming that he intended to address immediately.

Charlie climbed into the cab of his truck and pulled out his phone.  He found Carolyn’s number and punched it.  “Hello” came her voice after three rings.

“Hello, Carolyn” Charlie answered.

“Oh, Hi Charlie.  Well, how did it go?” she asked.  Clearly, she had been thinking about his meeting with Jack and Maureen.

“Pretty good” Charlie replied.  “I’d love to discuss it with you.  How about dinner tonight at Rory’s?”

“Rory’s?  It must have gone really well.  Or really badly!”

“No, it was good.  I can’t wait to tell you about it, and there’s a lot more that I want to tell you, too.”

“Ummm, interesting.  Six o’clock?”

“If you must, but I was thinking about five.”

“He’s anxious!  This just keeps getting better.  I’ll call and make a reservation for five o’clock.  Oh, I forgot, my Rory’s dress is at the cleaner’s.”

“I’d be proud to go there with you wearing sweats.  Carolyn, I – – -, well, I’ll tell you at Rory’s.

“I can hardly wait.”

“Me too.”

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The Garden, Chapter XVI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello” Charlie answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK.  So what are you going to say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Manny?  Is this Manny Baca?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, cabrón.  Rape it and run, eh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

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

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

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

 

The Garden, Chapter XV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re amazing, Mom!” he told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring your appetite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter XIV

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Charlie looked at Tank uncomprehendingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, and Charlie.”

“Yes’” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things like what, Mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie declared that he did not remember any such thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter XIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’d have to kill me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And did you run?”

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

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

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

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter XI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a year ago next month.”

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

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

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

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

“Who are you using as a general contractor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good bye, Charlie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah” Charlie replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie mutely nodded for her to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll give you a call.”

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

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

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

Wedding Bells

At noon on August 20, 1973, the bells were chiming from the California Tower in Balboa Park, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the beautiful city that is San Diego, California.  August 20, 1973, was also the day that I married Clarice Braxton in Balboa Park, and although the bells in the California Tower chimed every day at noon whether I was getting married or not, I imagined that they were ringing for the happy couple.  On the surface it looked like a promising start to a life of marital bliss for the lucky pair.  A brilliant sun was shining out of the vast blue dome of the sky with not a single dark cloud to portend a cold, chill rain falling on this day or any other in the lives of the hopeful bride and groom.  Family, friends and neighbors collectively drew in their breath as the radiant bride, clothed in white and projecting the beauty and serenity of a Greek goddess, stepped out of a tent that had been set up as her dressing room and walked across the grass to where a judge was waiting for the ceremony to begin.  Everything was ready, but where was the groom?

This story begins two years earlier when I met Clarice in a history class at Grossmont Community College in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego.  We sat next to each other and I was surprised that this beautiful girl was so friendly with me.  I was very shy and didn’t expect to connect so easily with a girl as attractive as Clarice.  I pulled together my courage one day and asked her if she would like to go on a picnic with me and several of my friends, and I was again pleasantly surprised when she agreed.  Thus we began a five year relationship which included living together, being separated by 540 miles when I attended my first year away at Sonoma State University (“College” at the time that I attended), limited fidelity on both of our parts, and then living together again in San Diego after my first year at SSU was completed.

Both Clarice and I were not likely candidates for a long and happy marriage from the start.  Neither one of us came from a successful family and we went into our marriage without any sort of model of what a successful marriage even looked like.  Clarice’s parents had divorced some time before I met her, I’m not really sure how long before, and while I never saw any open hostility between Ellen and David Braxton on those rare occasions when they were at the same place together, it was easy to see that there were still scars, and that those scars still hurt.  I liked both of Clarice’s parents very much, but then I didn’t live in their home while their marriage was dissolving.

Clarice’s younger brother Don did live there however, and the strain of it showed up in his personality.  Either that or he was just a jerk from birth.  Don was a jock, a basketball player on the junior college team.  I was, if anything, the Anti Jock.  A skinny guy with wild, curly shoulder length red hair and a beard that looked like a big, red Brillo pad stuck to my face, I cared not one little bit about the latest clothing style or who was throwing or attending the best parties or, more to the point, that Don played on the Grossmont College basketball team or any other basketball team.  We tried to get along at first but we were like matter and anti matter, and only avoided a major collision as a result of periodic intervention by Clarice or by sheer luck when I went storming over to their family apartment with blood in my eye one day but he either stayed indoors or wasn’t home.  This was probably a great blessing for me as I am now almost certain that he could have kicked my ass three ways from Sunday.

Out of this family life Clarice emerged with an outlook that was a blend of fairy tale and tragedy.  She seemed to see herself as a Scarlet O’Hara figure from “Gone With The Wind” and would on some occasions lapse into a Southern drawl that I found sort of creepy.  And while I never once felt the least bit like Rhett Butler, I can’t help but believe that she somehow saw a little bit of Rhett Butler in me.  Clarice clung close to me, closer many times than my wild and unmoored self was comfortable with.  In spite of my continuing indulgence in partying with friends whom she did not care for, or my sitting on a bar stool until midnight or later with my friends Wes and Joe, Clarice would be waiting for her Prince Charming when he finally slouched in, bleary eyed and mostly ready to just go to sleep.  With some modifications a variation of this theme continued to be the pattern for our relationship for the next five years.

My preparation for marriage was no more auspicious than was Clarice’s.  My parents separated when I was twelve years old but reunited in less than six months because my brother Brad and I were spinning out of control and my mother could no longer handle us alone.  Our home was very much like the Cold War which was then simmering between the U.S. and the now defunct Soviet Union.  Between periodic outbreaks of violence was a nearly continuous low-level tension and a fear that bad things could erupt at any time.  Brad got himself thrown out of the neighborhood high school and was sent to the continuation school, or “Hard Guy High”, which oddly enough was structured like a college in that one could take a greater work load than most and graduate earlier than kids at the conventional schools.  Most of the students at Hard Guy High did nothing of the sort but Brad took that route and graduated from high school at seventeen years of age.  He then asked for and received our father’s permission to join the Army at the age of seventeen and thereby escaped our home.  I would graduate from the neighborhood high school four years later in the usual manner, and would also join the Army at eighteen years of age and in the middle of a war in order to make my own getaway,

My mother and father endured each other; that is the best way that I can describe the only marriage that I had had a close personal look at.  Love was never mentioned and never shown, and I got my training on love and marriage from “Leave It To Beaver” and from rock and roll lyrics and movie scripts.  It is not much of a stretch to say that neither Clarice nor I, and especially I, knew anything at all about the love that is supposed to be the foundation of a marriage and the hard work and commitment required to make a marriage succeed.

But we decided to give it a go anyway.  In June of 1973 I returned to San Diego for the summer and we moved into a lovely stucco cottage in a courtyard apartment not far from the home where I had grown up.  Brad promised to introduce me to the exhilarating and profitable life of a drywall installer, and I immediately began to spend long days engaged in that physically demanding and, in those days, very lucrative job of hanging drywall.  Clarice stayed home most of the time waiting for me to return,  which I did after downing several beers with the guys after work.  Drywall hangers in those days reveled in their image of hard working, hard drinking cowboys.  I don’t know if that continues to be true today.  Still, Clarice and I spent many hours together in relative bliss and so, one day, while we were sitting at a bar called ‘Grandma’s’, I put down my glass of beer and said “You know what?  I think that we should get married.”

I’m pretty sure that was not the proposal that Clarice had dreamed of since she had been a little girl.  No down-on-the-knee action in a restaurant, no “close your eyes” and a ring in my hands when I say “open your eyes now”.  Just a transvestite playing the piano in a neighborhood dive and a guy who truly did not know any better saying “You know what?  I think we should get married”.  What followed is absolutely inexplicable:  Clarice said “Yes”.

Now began the days of planning.  A license was to be applied for and obtained, blood needed to be drawn, a date and location in Balboa Park had to be reserved and a hundred other details needed to be tidied up.  Clarice did most of those things while i continued to hang drywall in order to pay for all of this.  We went together to Tijuana, Mexico, to find a shirt to go with my nice new blue jeans.  It was pale green with a quetzal bird motif.  We also found our rings in Mexico; silver, with what they said was a peyote bird imprinted into it.  As far as I know there is no such animal as a peyote bird but that is only a bothersome detail; I liked the sound of it and so we bought them on the spot.

I continued to work as the big day approached and about a week before the ceremony was to take place I had an accident on the job.  For one moment I lost my concentration and in less than a heartbeat I had drawn my finger across the fresh blade in my drywall knife and sliced a slab of meat off of the side of my right middle finger.  Brad took me and the now-separated piece of my finger to the emergency room at a nearby hospital where it was deemed necessary to reject the sliced piece and graft another chunk of flesh removed from my arm onto my finger.  The result of this was that for the next couple of weeks I constantly appeared to be flipping people off with my heavily bandaged middle finger, which I held upright a lot of the time to limit the throbbing pain that I felt when it hung down by my side.

At long last the day arrived.  Clarice disappeared early with a coterie of family and friends to be pampered and primped and prepared so that she might emerge from the tent in the park as a dazzling example of feminine perfection.  I, on the other hand, had little to do except get dressed and be at my appointed spot at the appointed time.  As it turned out, this was too large of an assignment for me to handle.  When I arrived at the park Brad and Wes were waiting for me with a cooler full of ice cold beer, and it wasn’t long before we were drinking to my wedding, to each other’s health, and finally just drinking for the hell of it.  I remembered my role in the day’s business when my dad walked up the hill and cuffed me on the back of my head.  “Late for your wedding” he said.  “That’s about as shiftless as it gets”.  Dad was grinning when he said it however.  He was rather proud of having raised two boys who seemed determined to march to their own drummer the way that he had done all of his life, and would continue to do until the day that he died a little more than thirty years later.

I arose, somewhat wobbly, and made my way down the hill to where the crowd of spectators was waiting.  The judge was anxious to get things underway so that he could return to his weekend routine, and a very hairy hippie to whom we had given $20 began to strum a guitar and sing something from his seat on the grass under a nearby palm tree.  I stood there in my haurache sandals, blue jeans, and quetzal bird shirt with curly red hair exploding out from under my leather headband and the beard which jutted from my face, and with a big gob of gleaming white gauze and taped wrapped around my upwardly extended right middle finger in a way that made it seem like I was giving the judge, Clarice, and the whole world in general, the bird.

In the end the wedding went off without a hitch, except for the fact that we were hitched when all was said and done.  We stayed hitched for nearly three years, but our marriage was a doomed ship from the moment that it left port.  We both continued to mature slowly after that day, Clarice more quickly than I.  Ultimately however neither one of us embraced the idea that marriage is hard work, and that fairy tales are imaginary.  On that day however we were both happy as larks; me with my goddess and her with her scruffy knight in shining armor.  The sky which boasted of it’s glowing sun and unbroken blue was indeed littered with clouds filled with the promise of a future storm, but we couldn’t see them.  It seemed like a very good day to us at the time, and I am happy to leave it at that.