Category Archives: Redemption

The Garden, Chapter XXIV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s not too – – -.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Charlie.  Charlie Hamer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter XXII

“I thought that I was going to die right then and there” Charlie said.  “Those guys have hair triggers.  I really didn’t realize how bad they have it.”  Jason chuckled softly around a mouthful of hash brown potatoes while LuAnn shook her head and clucked her disapproval.

“You’ve come back too far and you’re too close to seeing your boy to be fooling around with such things” Lu Ann told him.  “Those men are dangerous, Charlie Hamer.  Don’t you go getting yourself killed just because you feel sorry for them.”

“It’s not that I feel sorry for them, LuAnn” Charlie replied.  “They’re my friends.  They stood with me when I was pretty deep in a hole.  I just didn’t really understand how deep their own hole is.  They’re always going to be my friends; at least, as far as I’m concerned.  I’ll just have to understand that situations where they’re involved can get out of hand and try to be as helpful and supportive as I can, if and when they do.”

“That sounds like the best talk that I ever heard about such things” Jason said as he put down his fork with a sausage link impaled on it.  “You got no idea what it can be like for us vets coming back from those hellholes.  Well, I guess you sorta got and idea, Charlie, with the trouble that you’ve been through, but most people don’t.  I suppose my folks tried, best as they knew how to help me, but usually I just pissed them off and didn’t even know how or why I did it.  That’s why I went to live mostly outside.  Auntie Lu here was the only one who just accepted me and didn’t try to fix me.”

“Auntie Lu?” Charlie interrupted.

“Yeah.  We didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but you’re pretty much like family now.  Anyway, Aunt Lu and Uncle Duane, God rest his soul, let me stay in a room off the back of their garage whenever I wanted a roof.  They never even offered me so much as a cup of coffee, but that’s ‘cuz I told ‘em that I wasn’t going to sponge off of them so don’t offer it.  At first I didn’t think they could do it, but they did.”

“But you accepted breakfast here” Charlie said.  “I’m not meaning to be argumentative, but how was that different?”

Well, Leroy wasn’t kin to me.  I worked some in the kitchen, as much as I could anyway, to pay for it.  And I still do when I’m not at work at the hospital.  Nobody was keeping records, but I’ll know when the bill’s paid up.”

“Now, you know that there ain’t no bill” LuAnn said.  “Not that you’ll listen to me anyway.  Well, I guess I’d better go earn my pay.  You boys’ll have to do without me for a spell.”  LuAnn walked away and began to minister to her customers’ needs, leaving Charlie and Jason alone at their table.

“So, you didn’t come home with any wounds, did you?”  Charlie asked.  “Physical ones, I mean.”

“No” Jason said.  “And that’s the funniest thing.  Guys were getting zapped left and right of me, but I never got touched.  I could hear the bullets going past my head.  You ever heard one?”  Charlie shook his head in the negative.  “Well” Jason continued, “they make the nastiest damned sound, sort of whistles and wobbles as it goes over your head or past your ear.  No ricochets, no ‘POW’, none of that Hollywood shit.

Well Anyway, guys got taken out with mortars, IEDs, small arms, you name it, but not me.  By the end of my tour guys would want to be with me ‘cuz they figured I’m lucky, but it didn’t do ‘em no good.  They’d get stitched up the middle or whatever and I’d be right next to ‘em and not get a scratch.”

“Sounds to me like you really were lucky” Charlie said.  “That’s a lot of nasty lead and explosives that was playing around out there.  Shoot, I’m surprised that anyone can go through, what is it, a year?”

“I was there two years.”

“OK, two years.  That makes you even luckier.”

“Yeah, I suppose it does.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m much happier about coming home in one piece than I would be about coming home in several.  Still, I can’t forget those guys who weren’t any worse or any better than me, and they got their heads shot off or went home on a stretcher or in a wheelchair.  I mean, sometimes I actually feel bad that I never got a Purple Heart.  It’s like I was shirking or something, but I wasn’t.

There’s nights when I wake up sweating, and I know that I’ve been rolling and kicking on the bed ‘cuz the blankets are all kicked off on the floor.  Usually it’s because I’ve been having the same dream: I’m in a firefight and I take one somewhere.  Usually it’s in the gut, but it can hit me just about anywhere.  Anyway, I know that it’s a bad one and that I’m going to die, and you know what?  I’m glad.  In those dreams I’m glad I finally got hit like my buddies did.  I’m finally one of them; I’ve earned their respect.  I’ve sorta earned my own self-respect.

Then I wake up and realize I’m home and still in one piece, so I would go live outside and make my way partly on the street.  You know, it’s dangerous out there.  You can get yourself hurt out there just as easy as you can in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I think I was trying to pick up my Purple Heart out on the streets.  At least, that’s what the VA counselor thinks, and I think he’s probably right.”

“So your counseling is helping you with all that?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah” Jason replied.  “I’m going more regularly now.  He’s a pretty sharp cookie and he’s right a lot of the time.  Some of the other guys are hard for me to be around though.  I mean, they’re so down that it’s like they project some sort of bad gravity.  It’s weird, but seeing them I figured that I’m not such a basket case after all, and it got easier to live with my shit.”

“Well, I’m glad you did, Jason” Charlie said.  “My counselor has helped more than I ever thought she could.  Man, there’s just no easy way to get your head straightened out once it gets jacked up by something, is there?  And speaking of my counselor, it’s time for me to pay up and go see her.  You take care, Jason, and congratulations on doing so well at your job and getting a handle on your issues.”

Charlie put some money on the table and pushed his chair back.  He knew by now what his favorite breakfast would cost and left that plus a generous tip next to his plate.  He waved to LuAnn as he walked to the door and then he stepped out into the brilliant sunshine of a late summer day.  In ten minutes he was seated in his usual place on the love seat in D’Andra’s cottage, with Salome turning and kneading in his lap, preparing for a nap in what had become one of her favorite spots.

D’Andra emerged from the kitchen with a cup of her delicious coffee and placed it on the table by Charlie’s elbow.  “This morning I’m trying my hand at croissants.  I’ve never made them before, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

“I have faith in your baking skills” Charlie answered.  “I’m sure that they’ll be wonderful.”

“We’ll know in about 15 minutes” D’Andra said with her warm smile.  “Shall we get started?”  Charlie agreed to that as D’Andra sat into her large chair close to him.

“So tell me about your camping trip.  How did that go?”

Charlie recounted the trip with Walt and Billy, sparing no details except for toning down Walt’s story of Bertie’s torture at the hands of the Viet Cong, and his ending of the horribly disfigured soldier’s misery during the battle.

“Well, that’s pretty frightening!” D’andra exclaimed.  “I’m glad that it worked out with nobody getting hurt.”

“Yeah, I am too.  Especially me!  I just didn’t know how deeply those guys were wounded by their experiences.  It made me feel like a baby for falling apart over my problems, which seem so much less than theirs.”

D’Andra took a sip of her tea and said “Um.”  She thought for a moment and then continued with “There’s a couple of things I would like to discuss about that Charlie.  To begin with, I don’t believe that your trauma was any less than theirs.  What I mean is, you were no less shocked and impacted by your circumstances than your friends were by theirs.  I hope that you don’t feel like your troubles should somehow be considered insignificant, because they surely were not.”

“No” Charlie agreed.  “I suppose that they weren’t.  But Walt and Billy saw so much of that stuff while they were overseas.  I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through.  I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“And how many of their daughters did they see die over there?  How many of their children did they have to bury?” D’andra asked.  “How many of them had mature families fall apart while they were unable to organize a straight thought from one minute to the next?  Now, I’m not trying to minimize their pain, but I hope you can see that you do nobody any good by minimizing your own.”

Charlie thought about that for a minute and then decided that, once again, D’Andra was right.  “OK” he said.  “I see your point.  I’ll try to be easier on myself.”

“Good” D’Andra said.  “You deserve it.  Now, there’s another point that I would like to discuss, and that was your response during the confrontation.”

“My response was that I nearly crapped in my underwear, and then I chewed out my two best friends.”

D’Andra laughed and took a sip of her tea.  “I would have crapped my own underwear if I would have been there” she said, and laughed once again.  Charlie laughed too, took a sip of his coffee and scratched a purring Salome behind her ear.  “But there’s more to it than that” D’Andra continued.

“I think you would have to say that you were in a very stressful situation and you were making analyses, connecting dots, and managing a situation that could have left people killed or injured.  You got everyone home alive and well that day.  I believe that shows an ability to see a problem from the outside when you are very much on the inside of it.  Your handling of the situation, at least as nearly as I can tell by what you shared with me of it, indicates to me that you were the most rational person there, and I believe that says a lot about how your mind is healing from your long hurt.”

A timer went off in the kitchen and D’Andra said “Hold that thought” as she arose and went to inspect her new creation.  Charlie was glued to his spot by a very comfortable cat and so D’Andra had to conduct her inspection alone, although he was very curious about her success.  D’andra returned momentarily with a down look on her face.

“Well” she said.  “The people who wrote the recipe warned me to not be discouraged if I failed on my first try.  Would you care for some dough that is well baked but has little else to recommend it?”

Charlie was still full from his recent breakfast but agreed to try D’Andra’s failed experiment.  He always left just a little room in his stomach when he came to D’Andra’s cottage.  She went back into the kitchen and quickly returned with what looked to him like two very reasonable facsimiles of a croissant, with a small dish of butter and another with a lingonberry jelly.  “They look fine to me” he told her.

“You’re a very kind person, Charlie, but you’re an awful liar” D’Andra replied.

“No, I’m serious” Charlie said.  He smeared a little butter and jelly on one of the slightly flattened pastries and took a bite.  The dough was, in fact, cooked, but it lacked the lightness of a true croissant.  “OK.  I guess they’re not perfect, but they’re still pretty good.”

“Go ahead” she told him.  “Get all of that B.S. out of your system now.  We’ll tell only the truth for the rest of your hour.”

“All right” he said.  “So maybe they do need a little work.  They still taste pretty good to me though, and you’re not going to get me to back down on that.”

“Fair enough” she said with a chuckle.  “So let’s get back to business.  As I was saying, you handled that situation well.  Sure, you were scared.  Who wouldn’t be scared?  But you thought your way through it and responded appropriately.  I think that says a lot about where you are at now.”

“Well, I wish I could say that I had it all under control, but I mostly pulled it out of my rear.”

“All the better, as I see it.  You weren’t reading a script.  You had to think and act under pressure to avert something very bad from happening, and you did just that, when all’s said and done.”

“Yeah, I guess I sort of did.  Huh!  I didn’t think of it like that.”

“And this brings me to your next face-off with a different game warden, so to speak.”

“You mean this Sunday, I think.”

“Yes, exactly.  You are going to be going into that meeting with exactly as much preparation for what could happen as you had last weekend up in the mountains.  What is Maureen going to say to you?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  Was that a real question?”

“Yes, Charlie.  I’m serious here.  What is she going to say to you, and how is she going to react when she sees you?  Will she be civil?  Will she be hostile?  Will she be interested in your life?  Or will she care if you live at all?”

“Well heck, I don’t know.  We didn’t seem to hate each other when we separated, although I came to believe that she did as time passed.  How would I know what to expect?”

“That’s exactly my point Charlie.  The situation is the same as it was in the forest with your two friends and the game warden.  You didn’t see any of that coming but you thought it out, and quickly, I might add, and you managed a very touchy situation.  I know that your meeting with Maureen and Jack could be difficult.  Not that it WILL be difficult, but it certainly COULD be.  But you were the cool head where traumatized men with big handguns were about to shoot or be shot.  Don’t you think that you might be able to handle this situation just as well?”

“Jeez, I don’t know.  Yeah, I suppose, maybe.  It is different though, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it certainly is” D’Andra agreed.  “Just like what happened last weekend was different from anything else that you’ve ever done.  I’m not saying that the same response, or any other rehearsed response, is going to work some sort of miracles next Sunday.  I’m only pointing out that you’ve shown the ability to keep some level of your cool under the most stressful conditions.  I don’t know how you’ll act next Sunday and I can’t tell you what to say or what to expect.  I can only remind you that you did as good a job in that forest of directing events away from a bad ending as any I’ve ever heard of, and I have no good reason to believe that you are likely to lose any of those skills in the next five days.”

Charlie sat back in the love seat to think about that while D’Andra got up and went into the kitchen.  She made another small pot of coffee and puttered with things for a few minutes, allowing Charlie time to process what she had told him.  When she returned she handed him a fresh cup of coffee and took his empty cup back into the kitchen.  Charlie knew that she was giving him time to think, and he made the best of it that he could.  After a few minutes she returned to her chair.

“So Charlie” she began.  “How is your new job status working out?”

Charlie spent the next few minutes telling her about how much he now enjoyed working.  “I’ll soon be renovating an apartment building that I built nearly fifteen years ago” he said.  “My boss, Carolyn, is busy every day scouting for new properties to buy, fix up, and turn.  She has a wonderful business sense, and I fill in the actual construction angle.  We make a pretty good team, if I do say so myself.  I’ve sort of inherited a crew, and I’m calling people I used to know in order to keep them busy.  I’d like keep them together if I can.  Carolyn’s also looking for raw land so that she can build from the ground up.  I’ve told her that I’ll help her to navigate any parts of that that seem tricky to her; I used to do it a lot a few years back.”

That sounds wonderful, Charlie.  I can see by the light that shines through your eyes when you talk about it that you really love your work.  It’s a very good thing when they pay you to do what you want to do anyway.”And it sounds like you are getting on very well with your boss.  Have you had any trouble reporting to somebody instead of being at the top of the heap?

“Carolyn’s almost not like a boss” Charlie began and his eyes lit up a bit brighter.  “She’s as smart as can be, but also very kind.  She’s already demonstrated that she’ll give a down-and-out sucker a break – which is what she did for me – but she won’t stand for anything underhanded.  Yes, I like working for her just fine.”

D’Andra sat silently, nodding her head a little as if listening to some far-off music.  Charlie didn’t know exactly how to interpret the silence, and began searching for something that she was perhaps waiting to hear.  At last he said “I think that we might be starting to build a relationship.  I like her very much, and I think she has sent signals that she feels the same way.  No, I know that she’s sent those signals.  I’m just not sure what to do next.”

D’Andra was surprised by that, and Charlie thought “She must have been silent for some other reason.  Oh well, I’ve opened that up, so let’s dive in.”

     “Well, Charlie.  That is a nice surprise” she said.  “I wish you well in this.”  She sat silent for a moment longer and then continued.  “How does that affect your thoughts about seeing Maureen?”

Charlie wasn’t at all surprised by the question, since he had been asking himself that all week.  “I think it helps, sort of.  I mean, I never had any intention of trying to renew my relationship with Maureen, but the thought of sitting face-to-face with a woman who I once loved, and maybe still do in some fashion, who now might wish that I would lay down and die, really puts a brick in my gut.  I think this gives me a little confidence as I go into the meeting.”

“So reconciliation with Maureen is definitely off of the table?”

“Well, uh, yes, I think so.  I mean, we separated and then divorced and all.  It’s not like I don’t sometimes think about what we did – I mean, I did – wrong, and how we might never have come to where we are if I had done this or that thing differently.  And yes, sometimes I daydream about being back there and re-doing things, and how it could now be with us still together.  But the truth is that I just don’t see anything like that happening.”

“And what if that turns out to be what she wants, Charlie?  What if her present coolness warms up when she sees that the man she once loved, who is the father of her son, is now trying to see the world more clearly and is more attuned to the needs of others, including her son?  What if, at some point in the process, she tells you, one way or the other, that she wants to put your family back together?”

“You think that I should do that?” Charlie asked.

“It’s not for me to think that you should do one thing or the other” she replied.  “But it is my job to point out that this could happen in order to prepare you for that possibility.”

“Hmmm” Charlie mused.  “I’ll have to think about that.  I mean, it’s one thing to build daydream scenarios in my mind and another to deal with the possibility that they could happen.  I suppose that, for Jack’s sake if for no other reason, I would do what I had to do.”

“Now remember, I’m not suggesting that any such thing will happen.  I’m only warning you that it could so that you can take some time and think about the possibility and how you can react in such a case to create the greatest happiness for yourself while discharging your responsibilities to your son and ex wife.  I don’t know where the intersection of those two things lies, or that if anything like that is even remotely likely to happen.  I only want to suggest that you should begin thinking about it before you meet with them this Sunday.  That way you won’t be completely flat-footed when that, or anything else that’s completely unexpected, comes your way.”

“Yes, I guess I should” Charlie agreed.  “I hadn’t seriously thought about any such possibility. It’s beyond my wildest daydreams.  Whoo, boy!”

“Well, I wish you success, however it goes.  I would love to continue this with you but I’m afraid that I must prepare for another client.  Charlie, you have shown that you can operate during a crunch.  You are getting your mind and heart on the same page and are facing your life with clarity and confidence that warms the heart of this counselor.  I don’t have any doubt that you will be kind and thoughtful this Sunday.  I will be praying for you and look forward to seeing you next Wednesday.”

She rose up out of her chair and Charlie, taking his cue, moved Salome off of his lap and arose as well.  D’andre walked with him to the door and, standing there with the sun pouring in through the open door, gave him a big, warm hug.  Charlie was beginning to get the hang of this new hugging thing and returned her embrace gladly.

Walking towards his truck, Charlie remembered previous times that he’d walked down the concrete path; times when he was afraid of what was coming next or uncomfortable with what had just happened.  Today he simply felt like he was prepared for whatever might come his way this day and the week to come.  It felt good, and Charlie was thankful for it.

He drove to the remodel projects that were rapidly being concluded.  The unfinished driveway had already been poured and was curing.  Lester had the crew spread out among the three houses and had all of the close to completion.

“You going to keep us busy next week?” he asked Charlie.  “Or am I going to have to look for work?”

“I’ve got an apartment building that needs a facelift; nothing big that I know of but it’ll keep you together until I get something bigger.  I’ve got friends with backlogs and Carolyn may find out today about a couple of remodels in Fruit Valley and maybe some new construction in Felida.  I’m going over to her house when I leave here.  Now, let’s see what’s to be done around here that needs the master’s touch.”

Charlie only stayed for an hour.  Everything that needed to be done could be done by the crew, and they didn’t need to be tripping over Charlie.  At last he unstrapped his tool belt and said goodbye to Lester and Frank.  “They’re probably glad to get me out of their hair” he thought.

He drove to Carolyn’s house but she wasn’t home.  “Dang” he thought.  “I should have called.”  He fired up his truck and thought “What now?”  In no time at all the image of his garden entered his mind.  It had been three days since he had last been there, and he knew that it would need to be watered.  Weeds were no longer much of a problem, so it shouldn’t take long to do what needed to be done.  To his surprise, Rachael was there already.

“Isn’t it a little early for you?” he shouted as he went through the chain link gate into the garden area.

“Speak for yourself” Rachael shouted back.  “Aren’t you supposed to be building the Empire State Building or something?”

“Supposed to” he replied.  “But I’m so good that now they just build themselves when I tell ‘em to.”

“I’m sure that they do” Rachael said with a laugh.  “Just leave this garden open, if it’s not too much to ask.  We need one space in Vancouver without a building on it.”

“Ohhhh, it’s the evil contractor now!  Let’s make this a politics-free zone, OK?”  Rachael laughed again and threw dirt clod at his feet, making sure that she missed by a wide margin.

Charlie fell to his work, and using a bucket to water only the hills in which his plants were growing he had the twenty by twenty foot plot watered in less than a half hour.  He returned to the truck and brought back several plastic grocery bags which he proceeded to fill with squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, peppers and green beans.  He brought his bounty under the canopy and sat down in the shade.  Pulling out his phone, he called Carolyn.  She answered on the second ring.

“Hi Charlie” she said, and without allowing him to say anything she asked “Are you going to be free in an hour?”

“I’m free right now” he answered.  “Do you need something?”

“Not right now, but I have something that I need your help with at four.  It’s bigger than anything that I have ever done, but it looks like a good deal – no, make that a great deal – if I have it figured right.  Can you meet me at the corner of Walston and 148th over near Orchards?”

“I’ll be there” Charlie said, and hung up.  He sat in his chair, staring off into the distance and wondering what big deal Carolyn might be working on.  She was an ambitious person, he thought, who intended to make it in the world on her own terms.  Charlie saw a little of his old self in her; the drive, the focus on the goal, the way she efficiently cut away what wasn’t working to her advantage.

“I don’t know if I entirely like that” Charlie said to himself.  “That didn’t work out  so well for me.”  

“What did you say?” Rachael asked, and Charlie jumped half out of his chair.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  I thought you saw me coming.”

Charlie clutched at his chest and looked up at the sky, or at least at the canopy above his head, and said “Here I come, Elizabeth.  It’s the big one!”

“Rachael sat down and said “I really am sorry.  I didn’t mean to startle you. You were really engrossed in something, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess I was.  I have quite a few things on my plate to chew on and it’s got me using brain cells that haven’t had much exercise lately.”

“I hope it’s good stuff” Rachael said.

“Mostly it is” Charlie replied.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Rachael said, and then followed that with “Oh, I’m sorry again!  Sometimes it’s hard to leave work behind.  Your business is your business.”

“Thanks for that” Charlie said.  “But now that I think of it, I think I might like to hear your thoughts on something I’ve been thinking about.  Not as a counselor, but as a friend.”

“OK” Rachael said.  “Shoot.”

“Here goes” he began, but held up his hand and said “One moment though.  I can’t afford to get lost in this.”  He pulled out his phone and set the time to go off in forty minutes.  “There.  I don’t want to keep my boss waiting.  OK.  So, I’m seeing my son and ex wife this Sunday.  I think I’ve told you that earlier.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Well, D’Andra has me thinking of something that hadn’t occurred to me before, not seriously, anyway, which is what if Maureen wants to reconcile and renew our family?  I don’t think that there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that such a thing could ever happen, and I don’t even know if I want any such thing to happen.  But what if it does?”

Rachael digested that for a minute and then asked Charlie  “Would that be such a bad thing?”

It was Charlie’s turn to be silent and think.  At length he said “Yes and No.  I’ll start with the ‘No.’  Maureen is a good person; a good woman.  We have many good memories together, more than we have bad ones.  We have a son, and it’s likely that he would do better having two parents at home.  No, I could do a lot worse than to finish my life with Maureen.”

Charlie waited another moment, then took in a deep breath and exhaled.  “And then there’s the ‘Yes.’  There’s more good than bad between us, but that bad is one big mother.  We were split before by it and I wonder, am I really so different now?  Am I really that much stronger now?  Would it just rise up out of its grave in time and bite us again, and this time even harder?  You know, that bear’s sleeping;  I’m not so sure that I want to poke him.”

Rachael thought about what he had said and prepared to speak, but Charlie cut her off by continuing.  “And then there’s Carolyn.”

“What about Carolyn?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure that we have the start of a relationship going on.  At least, I’ve found that I’m attracted to her and I think she’s pretty openly returned signals that she feels the same.  Renewing relations with Maureen would require switching gears that would be painful to imagine.  Of course, there’s no evidence at all;  AT ALL, that Maureen is interested in any such thing.  And when you stop to think about it, I might have just been imagining that Carolyn feels like I think that she does.  Really, right now I don’t know my butt from a hole in the ground, and I’m just trying to figure things out.”

They sat silently together under the canopy, both lost in thought.  The traffic on Garland Boulevard two blocks away from the garden made a muffled rumble of background noise but it was strangely serene inside the chain link fence.  Bees and other pollinators buzzed and flitted from flower to flower, sometimes passing close enough to be heard.  A hawk that was nesting in the fir tree in a neighboring yard flew by, possibly carrying some unlucky squirrel or rabbit to its chicks.

Charlie noticed the movement and thought about the lack of disruption to the garden by the rabbits that were so prevalent in the city.  No doubt the presence of a hawk that was looking to provide for it’s hungry family was responsible for the absence of bunny depredations here.  Rachael at last broke the silence.

“Charlie, I’m not going to give you advice.  I’m going to tell you what I feel in my gut, but I don’t expect for your to do anything just because I say so.”

Rachael fell silent again, thinking of how to express her thoughts.  Charlie waited patiently for her to continue, and at last she spoke again.

“Reconciliation is at the heart of my faith.  Now remember, I’m not preaching to you.  This is what I think about your situation and it is grounded in my worldview; my plausibility framework, whatever you want to call it.  I believe that the world was created perfectly and then it got screwed up.  You can literally believe in an Adam and an Eve or you can believe that they are a myth or a metaphor.  Either way, things got thrown out of whack and God has been putting things back together ever since; been reconciling a broken world with Himself.  How that plays out from one situation to another I don’t really know, but I have to believe that if reconciliation with your wife is possible, and the restoration of your family could be realized, then that is the path that God would want for you to take.

     Now, I’m not saying that you should do that.  ‘Should’ isn’t a part of this.  I’m not throwing my Bible at you.  God loves you and Maureen and Jack and, what’s her name?  Carolyn?  OK.  God loves you all and will love you no matter how this works out.  And I believe that God will show you the right and best course to take when the time comes.  Not that you have to take that course or lightening bolts will fall out of the sky and cook you up like a burnt french fry.  He’ll just show you the right decision to make.  Then it’s up to you.”

“But what if I don’t believe in your god.  Why would he care one way or the other what I do?  And if there is a god, where was he when my Stevie was drowning?”

“He cares because he created you.  He loves His creation.  Did your daughter always do what you wanted?”  Charlie shook his head in the negative.  “And did you stop loving her because of that?”  Charlie shook his head again.

“And even if you don’t believe in God, I’m willing to bet that you hope there’s a heaven and that your daughter is there.  Even after her death you still love your daughter and want the best for her.  Do you think a good God who created you loves you any less?”

“Do you think Stevie’s in heaven?” Charlie asked.  “I mean, if there is such a place?  We never went to church or anything.”

“I don’t know, but I think its very likely that she is.”

“But what about all of the rules?  We never followed any of them that I know of.”

“How do you know if you did or didn’t?  And besides, it’s not really about a bunch of rules that for the most part people have made up for themselves.  You know, ’I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do.’  There’s a story about sheep and goats that might help you, but I’m not teaching Sunday School here.  I’m just telling you what I think, and that is that God loves you and everyone involved in your situation and will lead you to what is best if you will pay attention, and that reconciliation is at the center of His heart.”

They fell silent again and this time the silence lasted until the chimes announced that it was time to go and meet with Carolyn.  Charlie pressed the button that shut off the alarm, and then they both stood up.  Charlie felt like he was picking up an extra hundred pounds, and Rachael could see that he was weighted down by new concerns.

She put a hand on his shoulder and said “Remember Charlie, that the focus here is on Jack.  You began this by realizing that you want to be reconciled with him.  All of the other stuff can come later, but he’s the focus right now.  Maybe that’s a little of my professional angle leaking into this, but that boy needs not just a father but a Dad, and I think you need him too.  Keep your eye on the ball, Charlie.  Keep the main thing the main thing, and worry about the rest later.”

She gave Charlie his second hug of the day, and Charlie clung to her embrace as if he was holding onto hope.  At last they separated.  Charlie leaned over and picked up his sacks of vegetables.  “Would you pray for me?” he asked.

“I already am” Rachael replied.

 

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 VI

Charlie awoke the next morning with what he  thought at first might be a hangover.  His gut felt tight and his head felt like there was a band around it with a screw increasing pressure by being ever-so-slowly tightened.  “Dang it, I should know not to drink too much after being away from alcohol for so long” he thought.  But in his heart Charlie knew that the discomfort that he felt had nothing to do with the couple of beers he had enjoyed the night before with Walt and his friends.  This unease was just a new manifestation of the hurt that had been Charlie’s unwanted companion for the last two years.

Charlie rubbed the gritty sleep from his eyes and the first thing that he saw was the flowers in his old coffee pot.  “Damned waste of a coffee pot” Charlie growled under his breath.  Rising from his sofa, Charlie walked across the tiny living room, picked up the pot and walked toward the kitchen.  “I’ll throw these weeds into the trash” he thought, but when he arrived at the trash can by the kitchen counter he couldn’t bring himself to throw them away.  “What the hell” Charlie thought.  “This pot makes crappy coffee anyway,” and so the flowers received their last minute reprieve.

Charlie fried some bacon, then fried some eggs, and then fried some potatoes.  All the while he wondered if he could fry broccoli.  He gave up on that plan however and peeled an orange.  This orange was the first piece of fresh fruit that Charlie had eaten in many months, although he didn’t think of that at the moment.  His stomach was probably surprised at this intrusion by something with nutritional value.

Charlie looked at the coffee pot again, and again nearly threw the flowers into the trash.  Once again however he denied the impulse and even returned the flowers to their spot on the table next to the television.  Charlie remembered what he had thought the night before:  “It’s not the flowers’ fault.”  And it wasn’t.  The thought helped to relieve some of the pressure around his head, just a little.

Still, Charlie needed coffee.  He knew that finding somewhere to get a cup of coffee would not be a much of a problem.  Coffee in the Northwest is like cheese in Wisconsin; you could buy cheese with your tires or appliances or anything else.  As Charlie locked the front door and walked toward his truck the solution to his coffee shortage leapt into his mind.  “I’ll get a cup at Leroy’s.”

The morning rush was in full swing when Charlie walked through the door of that tiny reflection of an earlier time.  Every table and every seat at the counter was taken.  Charlie had arrived a little bit later than he had the day before and the workers getting off from the night shift at the port and railroad yard, plus the commuters waiting for traffic to die down before tackling the interstate highway that crossed the bridge and flowed into every corner of Portland (a futile act, that was, and everyone knew it) had filled the place.

LuAnn was bouncing from table to table, chapped red hands filled with steaming plates of ham, eggs, waffles and every other good thing that you would expect to find at a truck stop or a small town greasy spoon cafe.  Charlie chuckled as he thought to himself “News flash Charlie.  This IS a small town greasy spoon cafe.”  LuAnn looked up as she deposited her load of dishes and turned to pick up another that had appeared on the window shelf between the dining area and the kitchen.

“Hello there” she said cheerily when her eyes landed upon Charlie’s.  “Sit anywhere.  We don’t stand on formality around here.”

Charlie quickly assessed that standing was all that was going to happen at that moment if he was to stay, and he opted not to do so.  He sought LuAnn’s attention in order to sign his departure.  She at last looked his way again and he subtly waved his hand, sweeping the room.  LuAnn could see in an instant what the problem was and signaled back for Charlie to come to the corner of the counter, closest to the kitchen window.  Charlie did as he was told while LuAnn brought the stool that she had sat on the day before.  She moved some newspapers and a small pile of menus to clear a place at the counter and placed the stool in front of the newly liberated space.

Charlie thanked her and sat down as LuAnn walked away to clean up a table that had just been vacated by a party of burly men who looked like they could unload a ship or a boxcar with their bare hands.  At length LuAnn got the table cleared, poured a few more cups of coffee, and returned to take Charlie’s order.

“What’ll it be Dearie?” she asked.

“Just coffee” Charlie responded somewhat sheepishly, embarrassed that he had caused her to make a fuss over him for only a cup of coffee.

“Glory be, Hon” LuAnn said with a broad smile as she reached for the nearby coffee pot. “I told you that you were a blessing!  I’ve been busier than a one legged man in a fanny kicking contest.  They must’ve put on a second shift at the port or somewhere.  I need a rest!”

LuAnn cackled a good natured laugh at her own metaphor, followed by the smoker’s cough which she buried politely in the crook of her elbow.  Then, after pouring a cup full of industrial grade coffee which was still better than anything Charlie had made at home, she went off to seat another couple of men and clear two more tables where customers were beginning to look restless and ready for their check.  At this point a middle-aged, overweight man with a florid face beneath his cook’s hat and a stained apron emerged from the kitchen in order to run the cash register and pour coffee refills for the customers sitting at the counter.

Charlie watched the rhythm of the cafe as he sipped his coffee and reflected on the business that he had once owned.  Hamer Properties and Construction was no giant, by the standards of the real giants of industry, but in Clark County, Washington it was a very prominent player on the commercial scene.  The company had begun in the same manner that many construction outfits do, as one man with two acquaintances who acted as independent contractors and paid their own taxes.

Charlie was a natural at building things and in fifteen years had built a company that employed forty three workers plus various independent contractors, and built single dwellings, small residential developments, and small to medium commercial projects.  Additionally, HP&C held rental and lease properties that provided an even inflow of cash during the ups and downs of the construction business cycle.  Yes, Charlie had done very well for himself.

But all of this empire building did not happen by spontaneous creation.  Charlie would rise before the sun, eat a breakfast prepared by Maureen, and get to the job site early and stay late.  Charlie did good work.  His customers were satisfied and his workers well treated.  The money flowed in, and although Charlie had little taste for newer and more expensive toys, the security that his bank account and investments provided was like a drug to him.  “How much is enough” John D. Rockefeller was once asked.  “Just a little more than I have” was the gazillionaire’s answer.  Charlie would have denied the wisdom of that quote if he had ever heard it, but if he was honest with himself he would admit that he was a lot more like Rockefeller than he was like Mother Teresa.

Maureen would have agreed with that assessment without hesitation.  Charlie had never been a bad husband to her or a bad father to the children.  In fact, he was reasonably good in both of those areas.  It was just that he was an absent husband and father too much of the time.  Maureen first learned to miss her husband.  Then, ominously, she learned to not miss him.

Charlie’s relations with the children were complicated.  He favored his Golden Girl, Stephanie, who was a tree-climber and fly fisher and wave rider; in short, a girl after his own heart.  With Jack however his relationship was less secure.  Charlie loved Jack and was proud of his obvious intelligence and musical ability.  Jack took piano lessons and was his teacher’s best pupil.  Jack could also pick up just about any other musical instrument and quickly begin to sort out the techniques necessary to tease a little music out of it.

But Jack didn’t work well with his hands.  Whenever he tried to work with his father on a project around the house Jack would inevitably cut a board too long or, worse yet, too short.  The cerebral wiring necessary to enable a worker to see a finished project even before it was begun just wasn’t there for Jack.  Charlie wasn’t angry with Jack about this, but inevitably Jack receded from the center of Charlie’s attention as he drove on towards the goal of more business and more money,

Charlie’s eyes began to redden at the thought of his son.  Maureen had surrounded the boy with love and attention, and his big sister treated him like a rock star.  Several of Stevie’s friends were caught up in her affection for her little brother and gave him more attention than a young boy usually expected from older girls.  Jack was never made to feel like a pest with his sister and her friends.  Charlie, however, withheld the whole-hearted attention that Jack, and for that matter the rest of the family, deserved.  Maureen dealt with it, Stevie rose above it, but Jack was injured by it.  Charlie by now had plenty of time to reflect on that fact, and reflecting on it this morning caused the tightness in his chest and pressure from the invisible band around his head to increase.

The cook returned to his kitchen to prepare the order for the men who had come in a few minutes earlier.  More customers were paying up and heading toward the door, and none were entering to take their place.  After a huge inhale, the cafe appeared to be making an exhale.  LuAnn cleared one of the tables and a couple of places at the counter, and then refilled Charlie’s cup.  She shoved a pile of dirty dishes a little further down the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee, then perched on the round counter stool next to Charlie.

“Well, how are you doing today, young man?” she began.  “Two days in a row makes you a regular – – -.”

LuAnn saw the redness in Charlie’s eyes and stopped in mid sentence.  “Is something wrong, Sugar?  Are you OK?”

Charlie sat on his stool and said nothing.  He focused on his breathing, thought about the D Day invasion, and then gave up on that diversion.

“Yes and no” Charlie said.  “There’s some things that get me down when I think about them, and I’m thinking about them today.  I try not to, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.  Anyway, I wouldn’t want to bother you with it.”  Charlie reached for a napkin and blew his nose.

LuAnn sat quietly by Charlie and blew on her coffee.  Charlie was glad that she didn’t say anything, and he was also glad that she was there.  The warmth generated by the nearness of a kind human being penetrated his skin in some mystic way and spread warmth to his frozen heart.  Shortly, the last customer sitting at the counter began the usual rustlings and movements that signaled readiness to pay up and leave.  LuAnn patted Charlie affectionately on his wrist, handed him another napkin, and left to begin cleaning up the now nearly empty cafe.

Charlie dabbed at his moist eyes with the napkin and blew his nose one more time.  He wanted be on his way to work, but his coffee mug had just been refilled.  Also, he was feeling a peace imparted to him by LuAnn and he hesitated to leave that.  For just a moment he thought about helping her to clean the tables.  The young homeless guy wasn’t here today, so the full load would fall on LuAnn and the cook.  “Naw” he thought.  “You’re not their daddy.”

At that thought he remembered Jack again, and the time when he really had been a daddy, or could have been one had he chosen to do so.  The pain boiled up before he even saw it coming, and it hit him broadside.  Charlie felt like he was going to lose it, so he put twice the cost for a cup of coffee on the counter and stood up.  LuAnn looked his way as the motion caught her eye and watched as Charlie walked across the cafe towards the door.

“Dearie” she said, and Charlie stopped and turned towards her.  “Forgive me for butting in.  You don’t have to carry what you’re carrying alone.  Any time you want to sit somewhere where nobody’s going to judge you, you come here.  I’ll make a place for you if I’m here.  I know what pain is, and I’m going to pray for you.”

Charlie had no idea how to answer that.  He thought of God as a pissed off white guy in the clouds looking for the next sinner that he would roast in hell.  That picture didn’t make for much of a refuge.  The simple sincerity of LuAnn’s words conveyed none of that image however.  They just tried to give comfort, and Charlie decided to accept it.  LuAnn walked over to Charlie and gave him a hug.  As she separated she reminded him “You have a place here.  You aren’t alone.”

Charlie didn’t trust his mouth so his eyes had to speak his thanks.  He nodded goodbye and walked to his truck.  Once seated in the cab he prepared for the torrent of sobs that would usually come at this time, but oddly they failed to materialize.  Charlie was confused by this and thought full-on about Jack, expecting that to trigger the usual response.  It did not.

As Charlie thought about his son he remembered his love of music, his quiet demeanor, his intelligence.  And he also remembered that Jack was alive.  It was Stevie who died, not Jack and not Maureen and not himself.  He had thought before that Jack might as well be dead to him but today, for reasons that he could not quite fathom, he understood clearly that Jack was not dead.  He was very much alive.  And he needed a father.  This thought brought considerable confusion the Charlie, and he put it in the back of his mind to chew on it later.  Now, he realized, he had work to do.

Charlie put the engine in gear and drove to the site where he was working on the bathroom job.  He arrived at the house and quickly perceived that the homeowner was waiting anxiously for his arrival.  Charlie looked at his watch and saw that he was not late, and so assumed that she had something on her agenda.  Charlie assumed right.

“I’m sorry, but I have to run” she said on her way out the door.  “I have a client that I have to meet earlier than I thought.  There’s coffee in the pot if you’d like some.  I hope to be back in an hour or two.”

Charlie said “OK” and entered the house.  The homeowner lived in a house of sixteen or seventeen hundred square feet, the usual ranch style, that was about thirty years old.  Charlie had noticed that everything in the house was dated; carpet, appliances, and especially the bathroom.  The homeowner was always well dressed – professionally so when she went out to meet with clients – and this seemed to be out of place in this somewhat dreary house.  He therefore assumed that she had recently purchased the home.  Charlie had never seen a husband there, but he had never really thought about what that might mean one way or the other.  The homeowner, Carole or Carolyn or something like that, was the only person he had made contact with there.

She was about thirty five or forty, and pleasant, at least as much as he had had any interaction with her at all.  Usually she was in an office that had once been a bedroom while he worked.  From time to time she would disappear, sometimes leaving Charlie to lock up when he left.  “She must sell something” Charlie thought.  “Probably real estate.  Everybody thinks that they can sell real estate.”

Charlie entered the house and looked in the kitchen.  He had drank all the coffee he needed at Leroy’s but thought that it might be rude to ignore the offer that had been made to him.  The coffee maker had a glass container that was about a quarter full, and Charlie poured some into a white china cup.  The coffee was less than boiling hot, so Charlie could sip some rather quickly.  “This is the good stuff!”  Charlie thought.  “I have got to get me one of these.”  Charlie quickly finished his coffee and fell to work on the bathroom project.

Charlie soon forgot about the homeowner and lost himself in his work.  When she returned to the house he didn’t hear her come in.  Therefore, when she saw the progress that had been made on her bathroom she exclaimed “Oh, that’s wonderful.”  Charlie was not expecting that and jumped at the sound of her voice.  Worse yet, he had at that moment been preparing to break wind, and when he jumped the fart got away from him.

Braacckk!  Charlie turned beet red and apologized for the fart, the odor of which was beginning to permeate the bathroom’s air.  The homeowner was apologizing at the same time, but soon smiled, then giggled, and then simply broke down in laughter.  The laughter was not malicious; was in fact infectious, and Charlie’s embarrassment quickly melted away and soon he, too was laughing.

The homeowner sat down on the bed as tears rolled down her face.  She continued to struggle, trying to apologize some more,but the effort was only partially successful.  Charlie, for his part, was glad to escape the embarrassing moment, and chose that time to also escape the now-fetid air of the bathroom.  He flipped on the wall switch that engaged the overhead vent and exited the room.

As Charlie left the bathroom a wave of air drafted out with him, which brought the homeowner back into control.  “I think it’s time to beat a retreat” she said.  Standing, she walked toward the bedroom door and said over her shoulder “I’m going to make some lunch.  Would you like something to eat?”

“Sure” Charlie replied.  It was nearing his lunch break anyway.  “I have my own lunch that I should eat today, but I would love another cup of your coffee.”

The homeowner accepted that proposal and soon had coffee beans grinding in the kitchen.  Charlie retrieved the salami and cheese and apple that he had in a cooler in the cab of the truck.  The day was getting warm, as spring was plodding towards the summer that eventually came to the Northwest, most of the time anyway.  “I’ll have to start putting some ice packs in my cooler soon” he thought.  Charlie returned to the kitchen to find two plates placed at the table and the air filled with the aroma of coffee.

“You can sit over there” the homeowner said while pointing towards one of the plates.  “I’ll have the coffee made in a few minutes.”

Charlie sat down and placed his meat, cheese and apple on the plate.  The plate  was unnecessary, but it looked like it was expected of him and so Charlie complied.  The homeowner got some blueberries and yogurt from the refrigerator and some sort of cereal in a glass container off of a shelf.  She made a bowl of cereal out of those ingredients and then poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table.

“Thank you for the coffee this morning” Charlie said as the homeowner sat down.  “I mostly drink industrial strength mud, so that was a – – – treat.”  Charlie almost said ‘blessing’, and didn’t know why he hesitated.

“You’re welcome” she answered.  “I didn’t have time for breakfast, so excuse me for digging in,” and then she began to spoon slightly indelicate amounts of the cereal into her mouth.

“Excuse me too” Charlie said before he dug into his own lunch.  “I’m terrible with names, and I have forgotten yours.”

“Oh,” she replied.  “I don’t know if I told you more than once.  I’m Carolyn.  Carolyn Hatcher.  And don’t feel bad.  I’ve forgotten yours.”

“Charlie.  Charlie Hamer” he replied.

“Charlie Hamer” Carolyn repeated.  “That sounds familiar.  Ah, I remember.  There was a company by that name.  Any connection there?”

“Yes, that was my company” Charlie replied.  He was obviously unwilling to speak much further about it though.  Carolyn recognized his reticence.

“Bad memory there?  OK.  I’ll drop it.”

Charlie appreciated the sensitivity and felt compelled to say so.  “Thank you.  It’s still a raw wound.  Yes, I used to own that company, but just now I don’t feel comfortable discussing it much.”

“OK.  But that explains why your work on my bathroom is so good.  I have to tell you again how much I appreciated the suggestions that you made to me on the redesign, and also how much I like the work that you are doing.  I’ve told Al Schaeffer a couple times now how pleased I am that he gave me your phone number.  I’m not an expert, but I would say that you are quite a craftsman.”

“I’ve tried to be that all of my life” Charlie replied, finding that he enjoyed the compliments that he was receiving.  “I think it was Michelangelo, or Rodin, or somebody like that who said that a sculptor sees the figure that is locked in the marble and then releases it with his chisel  I look at my work sort of like that.”

“It shows” Carolyn noted as she chewed a spoonful of the cereal.  Charlie looked a little embarrassed as he picked up a chunk of cheese.  Embarrassed but pleased.

“I’m glad that you like it” Charlie said.  I’ve always taken pride in my work.”

“Why did you get out of it then?” Carolyn asked, and then continued “Oh, I’m sorry.  I said that I would drop it and there, I’m at it again.  Please, forget that question.  Your business is your own.”

Charlie looked down and pushed a chunk of cheese around on his plate.  He had spoken openly of his history a little more than a week ago with Walt and Rachael, but he was still not comfortable with doing so on a regular basis.  Charlie was touched by Carolyn’s obvious sincerity however, and decided to tell some of his story to her.

“It’s OK.  There was a – a death in the family.”  Charlie’s voice tailed off until it was hard to hear.  “I still have trouble dealing with it.”

It was now Carolyn’s turn to blush, and she became tongue-tied as well.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to – – – .   Ah, I’ve always had a big mouth.  Just ignore me” she said.  She then got up and began to fuss with plates and the dishwasher and almost dropped the coffee pot.  Carolyn’s agitation surprised Charlie and brought him out of his funk.

“It’s all right” Charlie said.  “Really, it is.  I’m slow at getting used to talking about this but I have actually started to do so a little.  I’ve appreciated your kind words and love your coffee.  It would be OK with me if we hit the reset button and go back to you saying what good work I do.”  Charlie smiled at his own attempt to lighten the moment and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had been successful.  Carolyn settled down and finished her impromptu kitchen chores quickly.  She then walked back to the table and sat down.  “OK”  she said.  “Reset.”

Carolyn breathed a deep sign, and then sat for a moment collecting her thoughts.  At length she said “There’s something else that I would like to discuss with you though, and I hope that I haven’t mucked things up so much that it gets in the way.  I picked this house up on the cheap because I like the location and, frankly, it’s what I could afford.  It definitely needs work though, as you could tell from the bathroom.  This kitchen,” Carolyn nodded towards that room with her head, “needs help too, possibly more even than the bathroom did.  I’m not sure of exactly what, but it needs something.  A lot of something!  I have some ideas but I would be interested in your thoughts.  Maybe, if we make a plan that I like, you could fit it into your schedule?”

Charlie thought about that for no more than a minute.  “I don’t really have much of a schedule.  Because of my – situation – I have not been all that engaged.  Yeah, I think that I might be able to put something together; share a few ideas with you.  One thing though, and I’m a little embarrassed to say it.  I’m going to be raising my labor cost a little, I think.  I’ve been pretty close to the bone for a long time and I think that I should bump it up.  It won’t be much, but I think I should.”

“I think you should too” Carolyn replied.  When Al told me your rates I almost didn’t call you.  I never trust the low bid; it’s usually low for a good reason.  I’m not rich,” Carolyn smiled at that.  ‘Not yet anyway.  But I believe in fair value, and you do better work than what I’m paying you for on the bath.  And speaking of that, will you accept more for that job?  I feel like I should be wearing a mask if I’m going to be robbing you.”

Charlie thought about that.  He really could use the money.  Ultimately however he decided against it.  “No, but thank you for the offer.  A deal is a deal, and I’ll keep my end.  Maybe, if we come up with a kitchen plan however, I could draw an advance?”

“Deal” Carolyn said.  “Now I have a lot of T’s to cross for my client that I saw today.  Would it be alright if I sketch out what I have in mind tonight and share it with you tomorrow?”

“That would be fine” Charlie replied.  When I finish today I’ll take a few measurements and pictures on my phone.  I’ll draw up some ideas and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Excellent!” Carolyn said.  She gave a little wiggle in her chair, and then quickly regained her composure.  “Then I’ll let you get back to work.  I think the air’s cleared out in the bathroom.”  They both laughed at that and then went back to their respective occupations.

Charlie took his measurements and pictures that afternoon after wrapping up work for the day.  He felt certain that he could finish the tile tomorrow, and the new shower door would arrive then or the next day.  Charlie felt the old construction rhythm returning as his tape measure stretched and then snapped back, and in his mind he saw a new kitchen take shape.  He wanted to discuss details with Carolyn right then and there, but she had sequestered herself in her office and had only emerged from there once to make a cup of tea.  At length Charlie knocked on her door.

“I’m going now” he announced when she opened the door.  “I have all that I need to work with for now.  I’ll bring some drawings tomorrow.”  Carolyn smiled and said that she looked forward to seeing them, but he could see that she was thinking about her work.  “Must be a big deal” he thought, “or a big cluster bang.  I hope this doesn’t fall through.  I really would like to do a kitchen and I could use the money.”

Charlie waved good bye and said that he would lock the door behind him.  Once he got to the cab of his truck Charlie leaned back on the bench seat and blew out a long breath.  The prospect of Carolyn’s job was exciting; it would be the largest job that he had done since the divorce.  The increased pay would be a good thing too.  Yes, the day had turned out better than he had imagined it would when he woke up that morning.  Charlie thought about Jack, Stevie and Maureen, and although the thoughts reminded him of sadness they did not plunge him back into despair.  “Fine” Charlie thought.  “I’ll keep it that way, for now at least.  I’ll let their memories rest for the time being.”

And then Charlie’s mind turned to the garden.  Walt would almost certainly be there.  “Shit” Charlie thought.  “I think he lives there.”  Rachael might be there too, although it was a little early for her.  Charlie continued to debate his next move as he pulled from the curb and headed to the busy main street a few blocks away.

“Turn left and go to the garden, or turn right and go home.”  Charlie didn’t feel quite ready to go home so he turned left.  To his surprise Walt wasn’t there at all, but Rachael was.  The garden was still fairly damp, so he didn’t feel the need to water.  Instead, he pulled weeds with Rachael for an hour, telling her about the job prospect and letting her vent about some particularly difficult issues that she had to confront at work.  The hour passed quickly, and they parted company.

As Charlie drove back towards Vancouver he remembered that all he had to eat in his apartment was some bacon, a couple of eggs, lunch for tomorrow, and a head of broccoli.  “Well”, he thought, “I guess it’s eggs and bacon and broccoli.  I have got to spend more on my diet!”

The thought of cooking tonight seemed like a waste of time though.  Charlie was anxious to begin work on the kitchen plans, and so he stopped at the Top Burger, a throw-back hamburger stand where they still actually cooked the burger patties.  “I can just afford it” he thought to himself.  “I’ll ask for a draw if she likes my plan and we agree to the job.”  What he would do if she did not like the plan didn’t enter into his mind.   He ordered a couple of burgers and and order of fries and drove home so that he could get to work.

Once in his apartment it was all burgers and fries, rulers and calculator.  Charlie had very little paper in his apartment; mostly the backs of envelopes that he received in the mail from a variety of people seeking his non-existent business.  After an hour he drove to the nearest home improvement center to look at appliances, counter tops, lumber and flooring.  Charlie wanted to put a nice package together for Carolyn to consider.  He knew that she would have some of her own ideas, and he also knew that it would aggravate him to have to modify his work of art; it always had been that way.  She seemed businesslike however, and Charlie felt like he wanted to be able to work well with her on this project.  And it was, after all, her house.

Late that evening, with drawings on some better paper that he purchased at the store and price estimates on all of the components of the job, Charlie felt like he could relax.  The sadness that he had experienced that morning had vanished, and Charlie didn’t know if that was good or not.  “Do I have the right to feel good?  Am I forgetting about my family?  About Stevie?”  Charlie let his mind chew on these questions for only a short while.  At last he concluded that life might suck from time to time, but he was still alive and had the right to feel good.  “For tonight at least” Charlie thought, “I’m glad to be alive.”

With that thought Charlie took a shower, turned on the television, turned out the lights and fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.