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Reunion, First Revision

Bert Laver climbed the last one hundred feet of the way to his destination almost on hands and knees.  The place where he was going to was no more than four thousand feet above sea level, but he was almost forty years older than he had been the last time that he visited this place.  The pack full of camping gear, added to the extra years and extra pounds that he was carrying, resulted in a very tired and profusely sweating Bert who finally rose up over the lip in the barely-distinguishable trail to arrive at his destination.

The place was a level area perched on the western slope of the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County.  This space was no more than fifteen yards deep and thirty wide, but it made an excellent camping area; an assessment that had been made by indigenous inhabitants of the area for hundreds if not thousands of years before Bert and his best friend Craig Lacey discovered it in their late teens many years ago.

Shade from oak and pine trees cooled the air at this place, and a ditch at the southern end of the shelf channeled water from a spring that flowed intermittently according to the snowpack and rainfall from year to year.  This had been a dry year and no water now flowed there.  At the east end of this natural terrace was a small cave in the rocks at the base of the upward slope which continued to the crest of Coyote Peak several miles further to the east.  Inside that cave the rock walls had been stained by the smoke of countless Kumeyaay fires, and rounded depressions in the low, smooth stone rising up out of the ground around the cave mouth spoke of acorns being ground into meal that would be changed from the bitter and inedible fruit of the oak into a sweet and nutty food that would nourish the hunter-gather inhabitants who had once lived here and called it home.

He and his friend found this place while searching for a hidden spot where they could safely grow marijuana away from the searching eyes of parents and law enforcement.  While driving on dirt roads north through the Viejas Indian Reservation, and never quite sure when they were on the Viejas or Barona reservations, or in the Cleveland National Forest, they had found a place to park and then walked upward and eastward in search of water and a patch of ground where they could try their hand at growing their own.

The place that they had found was no secret however.  In fact, it had been known to the inhabitants of this area for probably the last ten thousand years.  Every square foot of usable land that had water, even if only intermittently, had been known to the people who had lived here for so long.  It showed no sign of recent visitation however, so the two bull-headed teens set themselves to try growing a large patch of marijuana plants.  Their plan came to nothing though, as the constant traffic of their coming and going would have certainly drawn attention, and they were both bright enough to figure that out.

Bert and Craig returned to this place many times.  After notions of a crop of weed were quashed by the realities that finally sunk into their brains, they continued to return to this place to drink or get stoned away from the jungle of the city, and sometimes they camped there overnight or for a weekend.  On those lazy and idyllic days they would dream about what sort of lives had been lived in this place in the past and what sort of lives they might themselves hope to live in the future.   Once Craig tried to bring a girlfriend to their hideaway, but the remoteness and silence of that place was so unnatural and so unsettling that she insisted that he return her to the city.  After that event they agreed that it would be their private place, and so it remained to this day.

Bert picked up three stones from on the ground and threw one of them into the cave.  He had no interest in entering that hole in the earth until he knew that no cat or bear was claiming prior occupancy.  He kept his right hand close to the handle of his Ruger .357 Magnum handgun that was in a holster down the back of his jeans.  He would not want to use his weapon unless he truly had to, but neither would he allow himself to be made a meal of without making the price a high one. There was no response to the first rock, so he threw in the second and then the third.  Still no sound came to his ear, so he walked up to the cave and carefully stuck his head inside.

The cave looked exactly as it had when he first laid eyes on it.  The dirt floor showed sign of small footprints, probably of wood rats, and some dried leaves that had blown in over the years.  The dark varnish of old smoke still colored the stone roof of the cave.  Ashes from the fires that might have cooked those wood rats, or simmered pots of acorn mush, had long since returned to the dust.  Bert felt like he could still smell the smoke though, and he had always felt like he could see the ashes too, even if they were no more than gray specks in the brown dust.  They were still there, and in some way the people who had once cooked in the cave were still there too.  He felt it.  He felt them.

Bert had no intention of making a camp within the cave.  He selected a spot of soft soil in the shade of an oak that was relatively free of the prickly dry leaves of that venerable tree.  He put up a tent, formed a ring of stones within which he would use his gas-canister  camp stove later that afternoon, and unfolded an ultra light metal and nylon camp chair.  With his camp in good order Bert then sat in the chair with a book that he extracted from his pack and tried to relax.

Relaxation did not come to him however.  He opened his book and allowed his eyes to bounce from one printed word to the next without really following what the words were meant to convey.  Eventually he gave up the enterprise and closed the book, allowing it to rest in his lap.  He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope, and for the twentieth or thirtieth time unfolded and read the letter that the envelope contained.

Dear Bert;  I hope this letter finds you well, and I hope you will be kind enough to read it.  I also hope to accomplish two things with this letter and the first of those, although the hardest for me to do, will be the easiest to accomplish.  I want you to know that Donna has passed away.  She was battling breast cancer for the last two and a half years and lost her fight a month ago on July 28, and it has taken me until now to be able to pick up a pen and write to you of this.  It was a painful struggle but she died peacefully, surrounded by friends.

     My second intention of this letter is less certain of success but I feel that I must – – no, not ‘must’.   I wish, to try.  We were once the best of friends and for the last four decades I have counted the loss of your friendship to be one of the great disappointments of my life.  Now I must add the loss of Donna to that short list, and the hurt of it all is beyond description.  But while I can never get Donna back, it has occurred to me that it might be possible now, even if it is only a remote possibility, to restore my relationship with you.  

     With that project in mind, I am asking you if you would consent to meet with me and see together if anything can be done to set things right between us.  I will be sad and disappointed if that cannot happen but I would understand if it should turn out that way.  Perhaps I’m just fooling myself as I grieve Donna’s death.  I just feel like I have to try.

     Let me know if you are open to giving this a shot.  I will not write nor bother you again if you do not respond to this letter.  

     Your (former) best friend,  Craig.

Bert read the letter over two more times, folded it up, and then returned it to his shirt pocket.  He reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, his mind drifting to a time long years in the past.  He met Donna in a history class at Grossmont College and soon his mind had to struggle to keep itself focused on his program in cardiopulmonary technology.  Within two months of their first date they moved in together and eight months later when he graduated they were married and moved into a tiny rented house in Pacific Beach.

The program at Grossmont College turned out a new crop of technologists every year which led to a saturation of the job market for that position in San Diego hospitals, so it came as a pleasant surprise when Bert found a job at Mercy Hospital.  This enabled Donna to continue her studies at San Diego State, seeking a degree rather than a career.  She confessed to him that she was in college mostly because she had felt that it was expected of her by her family and she didn’t want to disappoint them.  Bert didn’t care.  He was happy to support the two while she went to school, savoring every minute of the time that they were together.

The end of their fairy tale life came abruptly.  One day when he returned home early from a fishing trip with Craig, Donna did not return home at 9:00 in the evening when her  shift at a little restaurant on Grand Avenue was over.  Ten o’clock passed, and then 11:00.  He lay on the sofa in the living room and fretted on whether he should call the police or call the local hospital emergency rooms, although the possibility of another unpleasant reason for her delayed return home had begun to form in his mind.  He was at the point of picking up the phone and calling the police when at last he heard a key slide into the lock of the front door.

Donna walked into the house and stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Bert.  He rose up from the sofa and walked over to her, shut the door, and took his wife in a long embrace.  “Thank God you’re OK,” he kept repeating while Donna said nothing.  At last Bert released her from his embrace, stepped back and looked fully at her.  Sadness put a blank mask on his face, and then he walked back to the sofa and sat down.

“You’re home early,”  Donna said weakly, and was unable to think of anything more to say.

“And you’re home very late,” Bert replied.  “I was worried that you had been in an accident or kidnapped or something.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve worried tonight.  Where have you been?”

“Uh, well,  I’m all right.  I, uh, I was at a party with some friends from work.  I didn’t expect you to be home and I was bored, so I went there after work.”

Bert knew that Donna had no particular friends at work, none that he had heard of anyway.  The probability of her going to a party with any of them and staying out until midnight was pretty low.  Bert decided to press her on this, since it didn’t add up in his mind.  “Where was the party?”

“At a house on Point Loma,” she answered.

“Take me there,” he asked.

“The party’s over,” she replied.  “Nobody will be there.”

“Take me there anyway,” he pressed.

They got into her car and Donna began to drive.  She took them to Point Loma and drove aimlessly around that neighborhood, up one hill on the bay side and down another on toward the Pacific Ocean.  At last she claimed that she couldn’t remember how to find the home.  Bert became convinced that there was no house and that there had been no party; not one that consisted of more than two people anyway.  “Drive us back to the house,” he said once he became convinced of the true situation.

By the time they arrived Bert had fallen into a deep sadness.  Anger would come later.  For now he simply began to gather some clothes and a few things that he thought might be important to him while Donna followed him protesting her innocence, protests which became weaker as time passed.  When Bert finished throwing his possessions into his car he returned to the house and stood before Donna and said, “All evening I have known that one way or another this was going to be a very bad night.  I’m glad that you are alive and safe.  I really am.  It is me who is the loser tonight.”  At this point the tears could not be held back, and they began to pour down his face as he continued speaking.  “I hope that you have a good life, and I hope that I never see you again.”

Without saying another word he turned, got into his car, and drove to his parent’s house.  Very nearly true to his word, he only saw Donna twice after that.  The first time it was at the divorce hearings.  They said nothing to each other, although Donna clearly wished to do so.  The second time was a year later.  Bert was shocked when he heard that Craig and Donna were seeing each other, and he broke off his relationship with his beast friend.  Later, he was devastated when he learned that they had gotten married.  What he felt had been a betrayal by his former wife had been compounded by this new betrayal by his best friend, and the pressure was finally more than he could bear.  He resigned his position at Mercy and disappeared from all sight by Donna and Craig and any other friends that he knew, but not before one unpleasant scene.

All of those memories swirled in Bert’s head when, almost forty years later, Craig’s letter appeared in his mailbox.  He almost threw it into the recycle bin several times, but for some reason that he wasn’t certain that he could explain he didn’t do that.  The old hurt began to eat at him, and for no logical reason he decided that he should read the letter and perhaps see if anything in it could help to put that old hurt back in its box.

He asked his wife Becky what she thought of this and her recommendation was that he should go if it would not be too painful for him.  Becky was an oncologist, a doctor dealing with cancer, and knew a lot about breast cancer and the damage that it does to loved ones as well as patients.  Perhaps Craig was reaching for a lifeline to anchor his sanity.  Becky was sensitive to that need.

“This person was once your best friend,” Becky told him.  “You’ve said it yourself; as far as you know he was never cheating with Donna while you were married or at any time before.  Look, I know that this has been eating at you for far too long.  Maybe this is a chance for you to heal this old wound.  All it would cost you is a few days of your time.  As your doctor, I recommend that you go.”

“So, you don’t think that this thing about my first wife is an insult to you? he asked.  I mean, you’re my wife and you’re the only one who I want to ever be my wife.  Wouldn’t my holding on to any aspect of my ex-wife be offensive to you?”

“You’ve never been anything other than a loyal and honorable man,” she replied.  “I love you and don’t doubt for a moment your love for me.  If going back to San Diego and scratching that damned itch that has bothered you for so many years will give you peace on the issue, then I really encourage you to go.  If it would help you I could go with you, but my personal opinion is that this is something that you should do on your own.”

Bert agreed with her on that, and after a couple of letters were exchanged on the topic the two former friends agreed to meet at their old favorite hidden campsite, with the hope that the positive memories of that place would make this meeting go as smoothly as possible.  He arrived a day before the meeting was supposed to happen, intending to spend a night in the silence and peace of that place, collecting his thoughts before Craig was to show up the next day.  He sat back deeper in his chair and let the peacefulness  untwist taut muscles and silence jangling nerves.

His mind wandered from his own personal memories to thoughts of the native people who had once inhabited this site.  This happened every time he had stayed here as a youth and he was not surprised that it happened on this day.  He thought of the huts made of branches and grass thatch and cooking fires where whatever meat that could be hunted would be sizzling, or nuts and seeds and roots and berries that could be gathered were simmering.  The gurgle of the adjacent spring-fed stream during wet years – and those would have been the years when this place was inhabited – and the rustle of leaves would blend in his mind with the murmur of a father or mother teaching a child some craft that they would need to know to stay alive.

He could see the father returning with a brace of rabbits, or the mother weaving a basked with a daughter and teaching her about herbs and other useful things that nature provided to feed them and keep them healthy.  He heard the giggles and cries of young children lying in a soft cradle or playing with make-believe bows and arrows.  It was almost as if it was real, and he wondered if he would see this tiny band of Kumeyaay families making a temporary home here if he opened his eyes.  Would the sounds in his mind become real?  He heard a sound and wondered if it was just his imagination or if his dreams were indeed real, and he opened his eyes to see if some ancient hunter was returning to camp.

But there was nobody there.  No hunter nor wife nor children now engaged their lives at this site.  Only he was here, wrestling with his pain once again.  He was alone, perhaps more so than he could express.  He looked toward the cave and tried to convince himself that he saw a wisp of smoke curling up from the entrance, but he knew that he had seen nothing.  And the sound of the children playing?  Was that imagined too?  He listened carefully but heard only the breeze rattling the leaves of the oak tree.  No gurgle or splash came from the dry stream bed.  There was nobody else there.

Nothing.

Quiet.

Then he heard a rustle in the bushes, the scuffle that might have been of a boot heal over rock and dust.  Bert reached for the handgun that he carried and focused his vision on the point where he had emerged from the trail up the side of the mountain less than two hours ago.  He had no clear idea what had made that sound but he was not supposed to meet Craig there for another day.  He did not want to be unpleasantly surprised.  Soon he saw a baseball cap rise up over the lip of the shelf upon which he was camped, then a face with eyes covered by sunglasses, and then the full body of a man rise up and step onto the ancient camping ground.

Craig appeared to see Bert immediately upon reaching the shelf, or at least the sunglasses were pointed toward him.  He stopped for a moment and stared directly at Bert – this time he was certain of it – and then resumed walking across the shelf.  He came to within a few feet of where Bert continued to sit motionlessly and, without any change in facial expression, said simply, “It’s been a long time.”

Bert nodded and equally simply said, “Yes it has.”

An awkward, drawn-out silence ensued.  Craig removed his pack and put it on the ground several feet from where Bert rested in his chair.  He looked at Bert again and then silently turned and walked over to the cave, where he bent down and looked inside.

“This is awkward,” Bert thought.  “Why did I agree to come here?  This was our favorite place, but that’s all gone.  Why the hell couldn’t I let that ghost story stay in the basement?”

Craig returned from his inspection of the cave and stood again in front of Bert.  “It hasn’t changed in a thousand years,” he said as he pointed back toward the crack in the earth.  “I guess there’s no reason why it should have changed in the last forty.”

Bert looked towards the cave, mostly so that he wouldn’t have to look at Craig’s face, and replied, “Nope.  I don’t suppose that there is.”

The silence returned.  Bert sat still and silent as the statue of Abraham Lincoln in that president’s memorial in Washington D.C.  Craig continued to stand, shifting his balance slightly from leg to leg and looking now at Bert, now at the big oak that shaded them both, and now at the point where the trail led back down the hill and away from this uncomfortable situation.  He then looked back at Bert and said “I had hoped that we might talk.  Should I set up my chair, or is this thing over already?”

Bert considered calling off this meeting and driving straight back to Vancouver.  He had travelled eleven hundred miles however, mostly at the insistence of his wife, and he did not relish driving that many miles back to tell her that he had not accomplished the task.  She wouldn’t criticize him if he did, but she would be disappointed.  He didn’t like the thought of that.  “Go ahead and sit,” he finally said.  “This isn’t easy but I’ve come a long way.  I guess I’m a little curious about why you really wanted to do this anyway.”

He watched as Craig extracted his chair from straps on his pack.  It was very much like the one that Bert had brought.  Bert was not surprised by that at all.  They had once been very much alike, so it was not such a surprising thing.  Craig had developed a bit of a paunch over the years and his face, which had once been angular and framed by long blond surfer’s hair, was now more rounded underneath the graying businessman’s cut.  A flush from the exertion of carrying his pack and his extra pounds up the trail still showed on that perspiring face.  Bert felt like this man was not the Craig that he remembered, and that was oddly beneficial for the beginning of this unwanted reunion.  It was as if Bert was not meeting with his former friend at all but rather with some other person entirely.

Craig got the chair unfolded and sat down in it, and then fished a bottle of water out of his pack.  He took a drink and then daubed at his face with a bandana that he pulled out of his back pocket.  “I’m not as young as I used to be,” he said.

Bert remembered his wet shirt when he had removed his pack a couple of hours earlier.  “Neither am I,” he answered.  “I remember that this used to be a lot easier.”

Craig chuckled at that.  It was an attempt to lighten the dense tension in the air between them rather than a reaction to anything amusing in what had been no more than a statement of fact.  He took another sip of water and then sat silently in his chair.

Bert felt that this meeting was about to end without anything positive to be said about it, so he decided that he must break the ice.  “I suppose that we should shit or get off the pot,” he said.  “So, you said in your letter that Donna has died.  Were you two married all of that time?”

Craig’s face showed relief that Bert had opened the conversation, even if he did start with the hardest thing that he could possibly talk about.  He also understood the deeper implication of the question and ignored it for now.  “Yes.  We were.  We were married for 38 years.  Almost 39.”

“Humph,” Bert grunted.  “I didn’t expect that.”

Craig ignored the insult.  “I suppose that I know why you would have thought that,” he said.

“Yeah, I suppose that you do,” Bert answered.

Again silence settled between the two men as they withdrew into their own thoughts, one trying to find a way to make this work and the other trying to find out if he had any desire for it to do so.  It was Craig who broke the silence this time.  “I know that you didn’t believe me the last time I said this, but I never cheated with Donna when you two were married.”

“I haven’t thought about that very much,” Bert replied, which was a bald faced lie.

“No, really.  I never did,” Craig reiterated.  “I admit that I was infatuated with her from the first time that I saw her, and I won’t deny that I was tempted to try something stupid on a hundred different occasions, but I never did.  You were my best friend, and I was not going to do that.  I never wanted to blow our relationship.  I was shocked when I heard about what happened between you two and I didn’t go near her for as long as I could stand it after you separated.  When I decided that it was really over between you two I made a move and it finally paid off.  I had no idea that you would take it so hard.  I thought that it was done between the two of you.”

Bert felt his anger flare when Craig told him this.  It was an old anger too, an anger that had lain in his heart for decades like a grain of sand in an oyster, except that this grain of sand, instead of producing a pearl, had developed into something more like a suppurating ulcer that was encased in multiple layers of scab that was only mostly able to contain the noxious pus that still managed from time to time to seep out and poison his life.  Little bits of that toxic ooze would sometimes show up in hours of sadness and repressed anger.  His wife had seen this and hoped that this reunion might rip the scabs open and let in some healing light and air.

“Donna was my first love man,” Bert said, almost surprising himself with the urgency of his declaration.  “ I know that sounds like soap opera shit, but it’s true.  She owned me and I thought that I owned her.  I told her when I left her that I couldn’t share her; that it had to be me and her or nothing at all, and then you pop up sharing a bed and a home and a life with her.  Damn it man, what the fuck did you think I would feel?”

Bert felt the anger boil, and as it did he returned in his mind to the last time that he had seen Craig and Donna.  Craig was lying crumpled on the lawn of the house that he and Donna then shared.  Craig had asked him to come over an try to patch things up.  Bert said that he could not walk into a house that Donna shared with another man and so Craig came outside to try to begin a healing process.  Bert snapped and swung a furious right hand that caught Craig completely by surprise.  He had fallen like a sack of dirty laundry, with blood beginning to run from split lips and a hole where a couple of teeth used to be.

This made Bert even madder, as the satisfaction that he had sought from a punishing fight with the give and take of blows thrown and blows received by both combatants had now been taken from him too.  As a result he took out his frustration on a nearby palm tree, pounding it over and over again with a fist that was already bleeding as a result of his first blow against Craig’s jaw.  Screaming his rage and grief and hatred of even being alive Bert beat against the tree, spraying blood in every direction with each blow while Donna wailed and cried over the prostrate form of Craig, pleading with Bert to stop his assault on the tree and leave.

Bert’s control returned, but only just sufficiently for him to grant a pardon to the tree and to leave as Donna had requested while she tried to help her groggy husband back onto his feet and into their bed so that she could begin first aid for his wounds.  Bert turned away from them both and never looked back.  One week later he was on the road with no idea where he was going, and a year later he was at the University of Washington in Seattle, as far away from Craig and Donna as he could manage while still being on the West Coast.

Craig looked down at the ground when Bert asked his last question and Bert backed off just a bit but continued, saying, “I’m sorry man.  I know that it’s been too long to hold on like that.  It’s just that it still hurts.  It never goes away.  It has never let me alone.”

Craig looked up when Bert was finished speaking and said, “It’s OK.  I know it hurts.  It would be ridiculous to imagine for a minute that it wouldn’t.  I was just hoping that time had softened the hurt just a little.  I can see that I was wrong.”

Craig’s conciliatory tone served to damp Bert’s anger, but he still had acid churning in his stomach as he said “You know it hurts?  How is that?  Maybe you know it as an academic exercise, but how can you know how much it hurts when you haven’t been through it.  Give me a break, man.”  Bert felt his anger growing again but this time he was more successful in controlling it.  “I don’t think you know jack shit about how much it hurts.”

Craig looked up from the dirt at his feet and, taking off his sunglasses, looked with his red-rimmed eyes directly into the face of Bert and said, “I know how much it hurts because it happened to me, too.”

Bert jerked as if an electric shock had coursed through his body.  “You said what?” he asked.

Craig sighed and slumped deeper into his chair, the stiffness of the tension that had existed in both of them from the first moment now escaping from him like air from a torn tire.  “Yeah,” he said and then he repeated, “It happened to me too.  A couple of times.”

Bert said nothing while he looked at Craig with his mouth open.  At last he said in disbelief, “And you stayed with her?”

“Yeah, I did,” Craig replied.

“How?” Bert asked in stunned amazement.  “How could you do that?”

Craig thought only for a moment before answering, which made Bert suspect by that quick reply that he had asked himself and answered that question many times already.  “It’s like this; I loved her.  You know how that is, right?”  Bert didn’t reply.  Couldn’t reply.  Craig continued.  “I loved her.  Donna.  I loved Donna.  I loved her from the first minute that I saw her and as I got to know her I loved her even more.  It was like, what was I going to do?  What could I do?  I loved her and nothing was going to separate me from her.  Nothing.”

Bert continued to gape at Craig, unable to believe what he was hearing.  “So, while she was in bed with some other guy you were OK with that?” he finally asked.

“No,” Craig replied.  “It wasn’t like that.  It didn’t happen often; really, only two times.  And it never went on.  She was a lovely woman and everyone was attracted to her.  You remember that.  I know that you do.  Temptations were always there and on a couple of occasions she succumbed to it.  It was like an illness, or a weakness.  She would just lose her way and let a mistake happen.  She would know that it was wrong and that she had done something that would hurt me, and she would tell me about it right away.”

“Holy shit!” Bert said.  “I can’t believe that you put up with that.  I mean, what man – – -.?”

“What sort of man would put up with that sort of thing?” Craig said, finishing Bert’s sentence for him.  “Yeah, I heard that from a few people who knew about it.  Look, I saw her after the deed had been done.  She was in agony.  She knew about how she had hurt me and she was hurting even more that I was.  I knew her.  I could tell.  She didn’t come away from any of those episodes untouched.  I can tell you, she suffered more than I ever did.  I think that she suffered more than you did, too.”

Craig fell silent then and Bert picked up where he had left off.   “I’m not buying it man.  She lied about it to me.  She tried to hide it from me.  I didn’t see her doing any suffering when she did that to me.”

“How long did you stay with her after she did it to you?” Craig asked.  “How do you know whether it hurt her or not that she had caused you so much pain?  That was the first time that it had happened to her, too.  She didn’t even know that she had the problem then.  She was scared and confused and embarrassed; how would you expect her to act?”

Bert heard Craig but refused to accept the logic of his words.  “How could you do it man?” he pressed his argument.  “How could you stand to be with her after the first time much less any other, no matter how few they were?  How could you be seen in public with her?  How could you go to bed with her?”

“I told you already,” Craig replied.  “I loved her.  It hurt me.  It hurt a lot.  But ours wasn’t a cheap love.  The price was awful, but I’d pay it again if I could have her back.  She was a wonderful person – – -.” Craig choked a sob and stopped talking long enough to get his emotions back under control and then continued to speak.  “She was wonderful.  You remember that, I’m sure.  She had a weakness.  That didn’t erase all of the other wonderful things that she was.  I was willing to endure the bad for the good.  It was a good bargain and I would make it again.”

Bert sat silently now, trying to take all of this in.  He remembered his grief, his tears and his rage.  He thought of his physical violence against his best friend when that friend had committed no greater sin that falling in love with somebody who he had fallen in love with himself.  Craig had, after all, waited until the separation was legal and seemingly complete.  Struggling to put things into some sort of order that would make sense to him he asked,” Didn’t you want to rage out?  Didn’t you want to kick somebody’s ass the way cheated husbands usually do once they find out about it?”

“No, Craig replied.  “It didn’t work out that way.  I didn’t ‘find out about it’ the way cuckolded husbands usually do.”  He sighed deeply and then continued.  “She told me.  After she had stumbled and allowed a mistake to happen she would come and tell me. She knew that she had done a terribly wrong thing and she didn’t want me to find out through the grapevine.  I remember her telling me once that I had every right to kick her out onto the street, that she wouldn’t blame me for one minute if I did.  She ached.  I could tell.  It’s like, have you ever seen a child grieve when their pet has died?”

Bert remembered Tiger, his daughter’s cat that had developed cancer and withered away before their eyes.  Tiger had to be euthanized to prevent his suffering.  He nodded toward Craig in the affirmative to that question.

“Did you doubt that child’s grief?” Craig asked.

Bert remembered holding his daughter.  Her young body was wracked with sobs while she said goodbye for the last time as Tiger was taken into the back of the veterinary hospital.  Her grief had been unmasked, as open and unashamed as only a child’s could be. He shook his head, this time in the negative, unable to speak at that moment.

“Well, that’s how obviously and powerfully I felt Donna’s sorrow at having failed me.  She didn’t want to hurt me.  She had a weakness, just like an alcoholic who takes a first sip and then loses the ability to stop drinking until the bottle’s empty, or a gambler or a person with an eating disorder.  The other 99.9% of the time she was the most wonderful woman in the world.”

Craig continued to talk about his love for Donna, and Bert watched his face as it was transformed from that of a man grieving the death of his wife and facing a hostile and injured old friend, into one with a glow and a softness that spoke of fond affection and complete acceptance.  This didn’t make sense, and the thought entered his mind that Craig might be trying to bullshit him.”

“People just don’t do that man,” he protested.  “They just don’t do that.  I loved her too, and her betrayal gutted me like a fish.  I really did love her, you know.”

“It’s OK.  You don’t have to convince me,” Craig replied.  “I know that you did, and you may or may not know it, but she continued to love you too.”

Bert rose up out of his chair and stood in front of Craig.  “That’s bullshit!” he shouted.  “She couldn’t do what she did to me if she loved me.  Maybe she fooled you but she damn sure didn’t fool me.  I’m not buying any of this!”

“Maybe you should ask Becky,” Craig said without stirring from his chair.

Bert stopped still and asked, “How do you know about my wife?  Have you been snooping into my life?”

“No,” Craig replied.  “I haven’t been snooping.  I only know what Donna told me.  She’s followed your life from a distance, which has been a lot easier since the internet and social media came along.  She was excited when you went to medical school and she was happy when you were married.  She was so proud of you when she saw the name “Bertram Laver, MD” somewhere on the internet!”  Craig paused at this moment and then said, “She prayed for you too man.”

“She prayed for me, shit,” Bert snorted.  “No god would listen to a prayer coming from someone like her.”

“Really?” Craig asked.  “Donna was exactly the kind of people that God would want to hear from.  Maybe you should ask Him about it yourself.”

Bert snorted again.  “Not hardly.  I believe in science.”

“Me too,” Craig said.  “Science is cool.  She believed in God though, and because of that I had to give it a thought myself.”

“That just doesn’t make any sense,” Bert said in what was beginning to become a mantra.  “That just doesn’t make any fucking sense.”

“Yeah,” Craig agreed.  “It sorta turns things upside down, but I lived with her for a long time man.  I saw her every day.  She cheered for you like you were the high school football team.  She celebrated you from a distance.  Hell, I was a little jealous of you at first, until I realized that it wasn’t a contest.  She could love you as the person that she knew you to be while she loved me as her husband, and she could do it without diminishing the amount of either one.  I guess God is probably more impressed with that than he is with any of the petty shit that I have to offer him.”

Bert turned and walked to the edge of the shelf.  He looked to the southwest, across Viejas Reservation land and toward the fog bank that represented the marine gloom that had settled over San Diego that day.  This conversation had stood everything that he had believed about his first wife and former friend on its head.  Bert had arrived at this enchanted childhood hideout expecting, if not intending, to lash out at his old friend and his unfaithful wife once again.  The pound of flesh that he had claimed almost forty years ago had cried out for a second helping.

Craig, however, had come with a story that he was completely unprepared for.  Donna had hurt him, but she didn’t stop loving him.  He had given her up in a big way, and then violently attacked his best friend out of rage generated by what seemed to be a double betrayal.  But according to Craig she had only failed, not betrayed.  He thought that again; She hadn’t betrayed, she had only failed.  She never stopped loving him.  She had never set out to hurt him in the first place.  She took no joy in his pain.  In fact, she had grieved the effect that her failure had caused him and followed his life, even praying for him!

And what did I do? he thought.  I rejected her.  Kicked her to the curb and then attacked my best friend, breaking his jaw and knocking him out.  Bert felt a riptide of emotions as grudges that he had nursed for almost forty years ran head-on into this amazing story that was only beginning to sink into his numbed brain.  He looked back at Craig and a new appreciation of him began to chip away at the cold anger that had owned his memories of his old friend for too long.

Craig had forgiven the failures of his wife and loved her anyway.  Not only that, but one of the first things that he did after Donna died was to reach out and try to mend the long-severed relationship between himself and Bert.  Bert stared at Craig, studying him as he sat in his chair.  Craig seemed to sag in his chair as if he was tired from carrying a heavy load for too long.

Of course he’s tired, Bert thought.  He’s been mourning for his wife.  I remember how wonderful it was to be with her before I failed to understand her the way that Craig did.  That has to be hard.  How would I react if Becky died?  I would feel like I was carrying the world on my shoulders too. Of course I would.  But in his grief he asked for me to meet him, and here at this spot no less, so soon after her passing.  I believe that I might be a part of that load that he’s carrying.  He buries his wife one day and then as soon as he is able he writes me a letter.  What sort of a friend have I denied to myself for so many years?  What sort of an asshole have I been?

     Bert walked back across the shelf and sat back down in his chair.  He didn’t look at Craig; in fact, he didn’t look at anything.  He leaned back into the nylon webbing of the chair and closed his eyes.  Again he let his mind return to the vision of the people who had used this place for millenia before it was taken from them.

Something separate from his normal senses kicked in as it had here so often in the past.  Once again he could smell the smoke of the cooking fire and the meat that was sputtering as it roasted above it.  He could hear the children playing, the men talking about hunting and seasonal relocation of their encampment, while the women talked of gathering foods and herbs, tending to the huts they lived in and managing the cuts and illnesses of their families.  He heard them making love at night and making amends among each other when strife would arise and threaten the security of their community.

Bert had always connected with this place in this way.  He had at first been surprised by it and was never able to explain it.  Today he felt like it was talking to him, telling him that love for an imperfect wife was not so different than love for an imperfect friend.  Craig had shown him both of these things, and Bert now felt that now he believed that love like that was possible.  Now he wanted to know how it felt.

Bert’s backpack lay next to his chair.  He reached into an open pocket and retrieved a stainless steel flask.  He unscrewed the cap and took a short drink, appreciating the warmth of the whiskey as it flowed down his esophagus and into his stomach.  Then he turned and extended the flask toward his friend.  “Are you up for a snort?  We haven’t shared a drink for, what?  Almost forty years.”

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REUNION

Bert Laver climbed the last one hundred feet of the way to his destination almost on hands and knees.  The place where he was going to was no more than four thousand feet above sea level, but he was almost forty years older than he had been the last time that he visited this place.  The pack full of camping gear, added to the extra years and extra pounds that he was carrying, resulted in a very tired and profusely sweating Bert who finally rose up over the lip in the barely-distinguishable trail to arrive at his destination.

The place was a level area perched on the western slope of the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County.  This space was no more than fifteen yards deep and thirty wide, but it made an excellent camping area; an assessment that had been made by indigenous inhabitants of the area for hundreds if not thousands of years before Bert and his best friend Craig Lacey discovered it in their late teens many years ago.

Shade from oak and pine trees cooled the air at this place, and a ditch at the southern end of the shelf channeled water from a spring that flowed intermittently according to the snowpack and rainfall from year to year.  This had been a dry year and no water now flowed there.  At the east end of this natural terrace was a small cave in the rocks at the base of the upward slope which continued to the crest of Coyote Peak several miles further to the east.  Inside that cave the rock walls had been stained by the smoke of countless Kumeyaay fires, and rounded depressions in the low, smooth stone rising up out of the ground around the cave mouth spoke of acorns being ground into meal that would be changed from the bitter and inedible fruit of the oak into a sweet and nutty food that would nourish the hunter-gather inhabitants who had once lived here and called it home.

He and his friend found this place while searching for a hidden spot where they could safely grow marijuana away from the searching eyes of parents and law enforcement.  While driving on dirt roads north through the Viejas Indian Reservation, and never quite sure when they were on the Viejas or Barona reservations, or in the Cleveland National Forest, they had found a place to park and then walked upward and eastward in search of water and a patch of ground where they could try their hand at growing their own.

The place that they had found was no secret however.  In fact, it had been known to the inhabitants of this are for probably the last ten thousand years.  Every square foot of usable land that had water, even if only intermittently, had been known to the people who had lived here for so long.  It showed no sign of recent visitation however, so the two bull-headed teens set themselves to try growing a large patch of marijuana plants.  Their plan came to nothing though, as the constant traffic of their coming and going would have certainly drawn attention, and they were both bright enough to figure that out.

Bert and Craig returned to this place many times.  After notions of a crop of weed were quashed by the realities that finally sunk into their brains, they continued to return to this place to drink or get stoned away from the jungle of the city, and sometimes they camped there overnight or for a weekend.  On those lazy and idyllic days they would dream about what sort of lives had been lived in this place in the past and what sort of lives they might themselves hope to live in the future.   Once Craig tried to bring a girl friend to their hideaway but the remoteness and silence of that place was so unnatural and so unsettling that she insisted that he return her to the city.  After that event they agreed that it would be their secret place, and so it remained to this day.

Bert picked up three stones from on the ground and threw one of them into the cave.  He had no interest in entering that hole in the earth until he knew that no cat or bear was claiming prior occupancy.  He kept his right hand close to the handle of his Ruger .357 Magnum handgun that was in a holster down the back of his jeans.  He would not want to use his weapon unless he truly had to, but neither would he allow himself to be made a meal of without making the price a high one. There was no response to the first rock so he threw in the second and then the third.  Still no sound came to his ear, so he walked up to the cave and carefully stuck his head inside.

The cave looked exactly as it had when he first laid eyes on it.  The dirt floor showed sign of small footprints, probably of wood rats, and some dried leaves that had blown in over the years.  The dark varnish of old smoke still colored the stone roof of the cave.  Ashes from the fires that might have cooked those wood rats, or simmered pots of acorn mush, had long since returned to the dust.  Bert felt like he could still smell the smoke though, and he had always felt like he could see the ashes too, even if they were no more than gray specks in the brown dust.  They were still there, and in some way the people who had once cooked in the cave were still there too.  He felt it.  He felt them.

He had no intention of making a camp within the cave.  He selected a spot of soft soil in the shade of an oak that was relatively free of the prickly dry leaves of that venerable tree.  He put up a tent, formed a ring of stones within which he would use his gas-canister  camp stove later that afternoon, and unfolded an ultra light metal and nylon camp chair.  With his camp in good order Bert then sat in the chair with a book that he extracted from his pack and tried to relax.

Relaxation did not come to him however.  He opened his book and allowed his eyes to bounce from one printed word to the next without really following what the words were meant to convey.  Eventually he gave up the enterprise and closed the book, allowing it to lay unopened in his lap.  He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope, and for the twentieth or thirtieth time unfolded and read the letter that the envelope contained.

Dear Bert;  I hope this letter finds you well, and I hope you will be kind enough to read it.  I also hope to accomplish two things with this letter and the first of those, although the hardest for me to do, will be the easiest to accomplish.  I want you to know that Donna has passed away.  She was battling breast cancer for the last two and a half years and lost her fight a month ago on July 28, and it has taken me until now to be able to pick up a pen and write to you of this.  It was a painful struggle but she died peacefully, surrounded by friends.

     My second intention of this letter is less certain of success but I feel that I must – – no, I wish, to try.  We were once the best of friends and for the last four decades I have counted the loss of your friendship to be one of the great disappointments of my life.  Now I must add the loss of Donna to that short list, and the hurt of it all is beyond description.  But while I can never get Donna back, it has occurred to me that it might be possible now, even if it is only a remote possibility, to restore my relationship with you.  

     With that project in mind, I am asking you if you would consent to meet with me and see together if anything can be done to set things right between us.  I will be sad and disappointed if that cannot happen but I would understand if it should turn out that way.  Perhaps I’m just fooling myself as I grieve Donna’s death.  I just feel like I have to try.

     Let me know if you are open to giving this a shot.  I will not write again and bother you if you do not respond to this letter.  

     Your (former) best friend,  Craig.

Bert read the letter over two more times, folded it up, and then returned it to his shirt pocket.  He reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, his mind drifting to a time long years in the past.  He met Donna in a history class at Grossmont College and soon his mind had to struggle to keep itself focused on his program in cardiopulmonary technology.  Within two months of their first date they moved in together and eight months later when he graduated they were married and moved into a tiny rented house in Pacific Beach.

The program at Grossmont College turned out a new crop of technologists every year which led to a saturation of the job market for that position, so it came as a pleasant surprise when Bert found a job at Mercy Hospital.  Donna continued her studies at San Diego State, seeking a degree rather than a career.  She confessed to him that she was in college mostly because she had felt that it was expected of her by her family and she didn’t want to disappoint them.  Bert didn’t care.  He was happy to support the two while she went to school, savoring every minute of the time that they were together.

The end of their fairy tale life came abruptly.  One day when he returned home early from a fishing trip with Craig, Donna did not return home at 9:00 in the evening when her  shift at a little restaurant on Grand Avenue was over.  Ten o’clock passed, and then 11:00.  He lay on the sofa in the living room and fretted on whether he should call the police or call the local hospital emergency rooms, although the possibility of another unpleasant possibility had begun to form in his mind.  He was at the point of picking up the phone and calling the police when at last he heard a key slide into the lock of the front door.

Donna walked into the house and stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Bert.  He rose up from the sofa and walked over to her, shut the door, and took his wife in a long embrace.  “Thank God you’re OK,” he kept repeating while Donna said nothing.  At last Bert released her from his embrace, stepped back and looked fully at her.  Sadness put a blank mask on his face, and then he walked back to the sofa and sat down.

“You’re home early,”  Donna said weakly, and was unable to think of anything more to say.

“And you’re home very late,” Bert replied.  “I was worried that you had been in an accident or kidnapped or something.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve worried tonight.  Where have you been?”

“Uh, well,  I’m all right.  I, uh, I was at a party with some friends from work.  I didn’t expect you to be home and I was bored, so I went there after work.”

Bert knew that Donna had no particular friends at work, none that he had heard of anyway.  The probability of her going to a party with any of them and staying out until midnight was pretty low.  Bert decided to press her on this, since it didn’t add up in his mind.  “Where was the party?”

“At a house on Point Loma,” she answered.

“Take me there,” he asked.

“The party’s over,” she replied.  “Nobody will be there.”

“Take me there anyway,” he pressed.

They got into her car and Donna began to drive.  She took them to Point Loma and drove aimlessly around that neighborhood, claiming at last that she couldn’t remember how to find the home.  Bert became convinced that there was no house and that there had been no party; not one that consisted of more than two people anyway.  “Drive us back to the house,” he said once he became convinced of the true situation.

By the time they arrived Bert had fallen into a deep sadness.  Anger would come later.  He simply began to gather some clothes and a few things that he thought might be important to him while Donna followed him protesting her innocence, protests which became weaker as time passed.  When Bert finished throwing his possessions into his car he returned to the house and stood before Donna and said, “All evening I have known that one way or another this was going to be a very bad night.  I’m glad that you are alive and safe.  I really am.  It is me who is the loser tonight.”  At this point the tears could not be held back, and they began to pour down his face as he continued speaking.  “I hope that you have a good life, and I hope that I never see you again.”

Without saying another word he turned, got into his car, and drove to his parent’s house.  Very nearly true to his word, he only saw Donna twice after that.  The first time it was at the divorce hearings.  They said nothing to each other, although Donna clearly wished to do so.  The second time was a year later.  Bert was shocked when he heard that Craig and Donna were seeing each other, and then was devastated when he learned that they had gotten married.  What he felt had been a betrayal by his former wife had been compounded by this new betrayal by his best friend, and the pressure was finally more than he could bear.  He resigned his position at Mercy and disappeared from all sight by Donna and Craig and any other friends that he knew, but not before one unpleasant scene.

All of those memories swirled in Bert’s head when Craig’s letter appeared in his mailbox.  He almost threw it into the recycle bin several times, but for some reason that he wasn’t certain that he could explain he didn’t do that.  The old hurt began to eat at him and he decided that he should read the letter and perhaps see if anything in it could help to put that old hurt back in its box.  He asked his wife Becky what she thought of this and her recommendation was that he should go if it would not be too painful for him.  Becky was an oncologist, a doctor dealing with cancer, and knew a lot about breast cancer and the damage that it does to loved ones as well as patients.  Perhaps Craig was reaching for a lifeline to anchor his sanity.  Becky was sensitive to that need.

“This person was once your best friend,” Becky told him.  “You’ve said it yourself; as far as you know he was never cheating with Donna while you were married or at any time before.  Look, I know that this has been eating at you for far too long.  Maybe this is a chance for you to heal this old wound.  All it would cost you is a few days of your time.  As your doctor, I recommend that you go.”

“So, you don’t think that this thing about my first wife is an insult to you? he asked.  I mean, you’re my wife and you’re the only one who I want to ever be my wife.  Wouldn’t this holding on to any aspect of my ex-wife be offensive to you?”

“You’ve never been anything other than a loyal and honorable man,” she replied.  “I love you and don’t doubt for a moment your love for me.  If going back to San Diego and scratching that damned itch that has bothered you for so many years will give you peace on the issue, then I really encourage you to go.  If it would help you I could go with you, but my personal opinion is that this is something that you should do on your own.”

Bert agreed with her on that and after a couple of letters were exchanged on the topic the two former friends agreed to meet at their old favorite hidden campsite, with the hope that the positive memories of that place would make this meeting go as smoothly as possible.  He arrived a day before the meeting was supposed to happen, intending to spend a night in the silence and peace of that place, collecting his thoughts before Craig was to show up the next day.  He sat back deeper in his chair and let the peacefulness  untwist taut muscles and silence jangling nerves.

His mind wandered from his own personal memories to thoughts of the native people who had once inhabited this site.  This happened every time he had stayed here as a youth and he was not surprised that it happened on this day.  He thought of the huts made of branches and grass thatch and cooking fires where whatever meat that could be hunted, or nuts and seeds and roots and berries that could be gathered were simmering.  The gurgle of the adjacent spring-fed stream during wet years – and those would be the years when this place would have been inhabited – and the rustle of leaves would blend in his mind with the murmur of a father or mother teaching a child some craft that they would need to know to stay alive.

He could see the father returning with a brace of rabbits, or the mother weaving a basked with a daughter and teaching her about herbs and other useful things that nature provided to feed them and keep them healthy.  He heard the giggles and cries of young children lying in a soft cradle or playing with make-believe bows and arrows.  It was almost as if it was real, and he wondered if he would see this tiny band of Kumeyaay families making a temporary home here if he opened his eyes.  Would the sounds in his mind become real?  He heard a sound and wondered if it was just his imagination or if his dreams were indeed real, and he opened his eyes to see if some ancient hunter was returning to camp.

But there was nobody there.  No hunter nor wife nor children now engaged their lives at this site.  Only he was here, wrestling with his pain once again.  He was alone, perhaps more so than he could express.  He looked toward the cave and tried to convince himself that he saw a wisp of smoke curling up from the entrance, but he knew that he had seen nothing.  And the sound of the children playing?  Was that imagined too?  He listened carefully but heard nothing but the breeze rattling the leaves of the oak tree.  No gurgle or splash came from the dry stream bed.  There was nobody else there.

Nothing.

Quiet.

Then he heard a rustle in the bushes, the scuffle of a boot heal over rock and dust.  Bert reached for the handgun that he carried and focused on the point where he had emerged from the trail up the side of the mountain less than two hours ago.  He had no clear idea what had made that sound but he was not supposed to meet Craig there for another day.  He did not want to be unpleasantly surprised.  Soon he saw a baseball cap rise up over the lip of the shelf upon which he was camped, then a face with eyes covered by sunglasses, and then the full body of a man rise up and step onto the ancient camping ground.

Craig appeared to see Bert immediately upon reaching the shelf, or at least the sunglasses were pointed toward him.  He stopped for a moment and stared directly at Bert – this time he was certain of it – and then resumed walking across the shelf.  He came to within a few feet of where Bert continued to sit motionlessly and, without any change in facial expression, said simply, “It’s been a long time.”

Bert nodded and equally simply said, “Yes it has.”

An awkward, drawn-out silence ensued.  Craig removed his pack and put it on the ground several feet from where Bert rested in his chair.  He looked at Bert again and then silently turned and walked over to the cave, where he bent down and looked inside.

“This is awkward,” Bert thought.  “Why did I agree to come here?  This was our favorite place, but that’s all gone.  Why the hell couldn’t I let that ghost story stay in the basement?”

Craig returned from his inspection of the cave and stood again in front of Bert.  “It hasn’t changed in a thousand years,” he said as he pointed back toward the crack in the earth.  “I guess there’s no reason why it should have changed in the last forty.”

Bert looked towards the cave, mostly so that he wouldn’t have to look at Craig’s face, and replied, “Nope.  I don’t suppose that there is.”

The silence returned.  Bert sat still and silent as the statue of Abraham Lincoln in that president’s memorial in Washington D.C.  Craig continued to stand, shifting his balance slightly from leg to leg and looking now at Bert, now at the big oak that shaded them both, and now at the point where the trail led back down the hill and away from the uncomfortable situation.

He then looked back at Bert and said “I had hoped that we might talk.  Should I set up my chair, or is this thing over already?”

Bert considered calling off this meeting and driving straight back to Vancouver.  He had travelled eleven hundred miles however, mostly at the insistence of his wife, and he did not relish driving that many miles back to tell her that he had not accomplished the task.  She wouldn’t criticize him if he did, but she would be disappointed.  He didn’t like the thought of that.  “Go ahead and sit,” he finally said.  “This isn’t easy but I’ve come a long way.  I guess I’m a little curious about why you wanted to do this anyway.”

He watched as Craig extracted his chair from straps on his pack.  It was very much like the one that Bert had brought.  Bert thought about how likely that was to be.  They had once been very much alike, so it was not such a surprising thing.  Craig had developed a bit of a paunch over the years and his face, which had once been angular and framed by long blond surfer’s hair, was now more rounded underneath the graying businessman’s cut.  A flush from the exertion of carrying his pack and his extra pounds up the trail still showed on that perspiring face.  Bert felt like this man was not the Craig that he remembered, that was oddly beneficial for the beginning of this unwanted reunion.  It was as if Bert was not meeting with his former friend at all but rather with some other person entirely.

Craig got the chair unfolded and sat down in it, and then fished a bottle of water out of his pack.  He took a drink and then daubed at his face with a bandana that he had in a back pocket.  “I’m not as young as I used to be,” he said.

Bert remembered his wet shirt when he had removed his pack a couple of hours earlier.  “Neither am I,” he answered.  “I remember that this used to be a lot easier.”

Craig chuckled at that.  It was an attempt to lighten the dense tension in the air between them rather than a reaction to anything amusing in what had been no more than a statement of fact.  He took another sip of water and then sat silently in his chair.

Bert felt that this meeting was about to end without anything positive to be said about it, so he decided that he must break the ice.  “I suppose that we should shit or get off the pot,” he said.  “So, you said in your letter that Donna has died.  Were you two married all of that time?”

Craig’s face showed relief that Bert had opened the conversation, even if he did start with the hardest thing that he could possibly talk about.  He also understood the deeper implication of the question.  “Yes.  We were.  We were married for 38 years.  Almost 39.”

“Humph,” Bert grunted.  “I didn’t expect that.”

Craig ignored the insult.  “I suppose that I know why you would have thought that,” he said.

“Yeah, I suppose that you do,” Bert answered.

Again silence settled between the two men as they withdrew into their own thoughts, one trying to find a way to make this work and the other trying to find out if he had any desire for it to do so.  It was Craig who broke the silence this time.  “I know that you didn’t believe me the last time I said this, but I never cheated with Donna when you two were married.”

“I haven’t thought about that very much,” Bert replied, which was a bald faced lie.

“No, really.  I never did,” Craig reiterated.  “I admit that I was infatuated with her from the first time that I saw her, and I won’t deny that I was tempted to try something stupid on a hundred different occasions, but I never did.  You were my best friend and I was not going to do that.  I never wanted to blow our relationship.  I was shocked when I heard about what happened between you two and I didn’t go near her for as long as I could stand it after you separated.  When I decided that it was really over I made a move and it finally paid off.  I had no idea that you would take it so hard.  I thought that it was done between the two of you.”

Bert felt his anger flare when Craig told him this.  It was an old anger too, an anger that had lain in his heart for decades like a grain of sand in an oyster, except that this grain of sand, instead of producing a pearl, had developed into something more like a suppurating ulcer that was encased in multiple layers of scab that was only mostly able to contain the noxious pus that still managed from time to time to seep out and poison his life.  Little bits of that toxic ooze would sometimes show up in hours of sadness and repressed anger.  His wife had seen this and hoped that this reunion might rip the scabs open and let in some healing light and air.

“Donna was my first love man,” Bert said, almost surprising himself with the urgency of his declaration.  “ I know that sounds like soap opera shit, but it’s true.  She owned me and I thought that I owned her.  I told her when I left her that I couldn’t share her; that it had to be me and her or nothing at all, and then you pop up sharing a bed and a home and a life with her.  Damn it man, what the fuck did you think I would feel?”

Bert felt the anger boil, and as it did he returned in his mind to the last time that he had seen Craig and Donna.  Craig was lying crumpled on the lawn of the house that he and Donna then shared.  Craig had asked him to come over an try to patch things up.  Bert said that he could not walk into a house that Donna shared with another man and so Craig came outside to try to begin a healing process.  Bert snapped and swung a furious right hand that caught Craig completely by surprise.  He had fallen like a sack of dirty laundry, with blood beginning to run from split lips and a hole where a couple of teeth used to be.

This made Bert even madder, as the satisfaction that he had sought from a punishing fight with the give and take of blows thrown and received by both combatants had now been taken from him too.  As a result he took his frustration out on a nearby palm tree, pounding it over and over again with a fist that was already bleeding as a result of his first blow against Craig’s jaw.  Screaming his rage and grief and hatred of even being alive Bert beat against the tree, spraying blood in every direction with each blow while Donna wailed and cried over the prostrate form of Craig, pleading with Bert to stop his assault on the tree and leave.

Bert’s control returned, but only just sufficiently for him to grant a pardon to the tree and to leave as Donna had requested while she tried to help her groggy husband back onto his feet and into their bed so that she could begin first aid for his wounds.  Bert turned away from them both and never looked back.  One week later he was on the road with no idea where he was going, and a year later he was at the University of Washington in Seattle, as far away from Craig and Donna as he could manage while still being on the West Coast.

Craig looked down at the ground when Bert asked his last question and Bert backed off just a bit.  “I’m sorry man.  I know that it’s been too long to hold on like that.  It’s just that it still hurts.  It never goes away.  It has never let me alone.”

Craig looked up when Bert was finished speaking and said, “It’s OK.  I know it hurts.  It would be ridiculous to imagine for a minute that it wouldn’t.  I was just hoping that time has softened the hurt just a little.  I can see that I was wrong.”

Craig’s conciliatory tone served to damp Bert’s anger, but he still had acid churning in his stomach as he said “You know it hurts?  How is that?  Maybe you know it as an academic exercise, but how can you know how much it hurts when you haven’t been through it.  Give me a break, man.”  Bert felt his anger growing again but this time he was more successful in controlling it.  “I don’t think you know jack shit about how much it hurts.”

Craig looked up from the dirt at his feet and, taking off his sunglasses, looked with his red-rimmed eyes directly into the face of Bert and said, “I know how much it hurts because it happened to me, too.”

Bert jerked as if an electric shock had coursed through his body.  “You said what?” he asked.

Craig sighed and slumped deeper into his chair, the stiffness of the tension that had existed in both of them from the first moment now escaping from him like air from a torn tire.  “Yeah,” he said and then he repeated, “It happened to me too.  A couple of times.”

Bert said nothing while he looked at Craig with his mouth open.  At last he said in disbelief, “And you stayed with her?”

“Yeah, I did,” Craig replied.

“How?” Bert asked in stunned amazement.  “How could you do that?”

Craig thought only for a moment before answering, which made Bert suspect by that quick reply that he had asked himself and answered that question many times already.  “It’s like this; I loved her.  You know how that is, right?”  Bert didn’t reply.  Couldn’t reply.  Craig continued.  “I loved her.  Donna.  I loved Donna.  I loved her from the first minute that I saw her and as I got to know her I loved her even more.  It was like what was I going to do?  What could I do?  I loved her and nothing was going to separate me from her.  Nothing.”

Bert continued to gape at Craig, unable to believe what he was hearing.  “So, while she was in bed with some other guy you were OK with that?” he finally asked.

“No,” Craig replied.  “It wasn’t like that.  It didn’t happen often; really, only a couple of times.  And it never went on.  She was a lovely woman and everyone was attracted to her.  You remember that.  I know that you do.  Temptations were always there and on a couple of occasions she succumbed to it.  It was like an illness, or a weakness.  She would just lose her way and let a mistake happen.  She would know that it was wrong and that she had done something that would hurt me, and she would tell me about it right away.”

“Holy shit!” Bert said.  “I can’t believe that you put up with that.  I mean, what man – – -.?”

“What sort of man would put up with that sort of thing?” Craig said, finishing Bert’s sentence for him.  “Yeah, I heard that from a few people who knew about it.  Look, I saw her after the deed had been done.  She was in agony.  She knew about how she had hurt me and she was hurting even more that I was.  I knew her.  I could tell.  She didn’t come away from any of those episodes untouched.  I can tell you, she suffered more than I ever did.  I think that she suffered more than you did, too.”

Craig fell silent then and Bert picked up where he had left off.  “How could you do it man?  How could you stand to be with her after the first time much less any other, no matter how few they were?  How could you be seen in public with her?  How could you go to bed with her?”

“I told you already,” Craig replied.  “I loved her.  It hurt me.  It hurt a lot.  But ours wasn’t a cheap love.  The price was awful, but I’d pay it again if I could have her back.  She was a wonderful person – – -.” Craig choked a sob and stopped talking long enough to get his emotions back under control and then continued to speak.  “She was wonderful.  You remember that, I’m sure.  She had a weakness.  That didn’t erase all of the other wonderful things that she was.  I was willing to endure the bad for the good.  It was a good bargain and I would make it again.”

Bert sat silently now, trying to take all of this in.  He remembered his grief, his tears and his rage.  He thought of his physical violence against his best friend when that friend had committed no greater sin that falling in love with somebody who he had fallen in love with himself.  Craig had, after all, waited until the separation was legal and seemingly complete.  Struggling to put things into some sort of order that would make sense to him he asked,” Didn’t you want to rage out?  Didn’t you want to kick somebody’s ass the way cheated husbands usually do once they find out about it?”

“No, Craig replied.  “It didn’t work out that way.  I didn’t ‘find out about it’ the way cuckolded husbands usually do.”  He sighed deeply and then continued.  “She told me.  After she had stumbled and allowed a terrible mistake to happen she would come and tell me. She knew that she had done a terribly wrong thing and she didn’t want me to find out through the grapevine.  I remember her telling me once that I had every right to kick her out onto the street, that she wouldn’t blame me for one minute if I did.  She ached.  I could tell.  Have you ever seen a child grieve when their pet has died?”

Bert remembered Tiger, his daughter’s cat that had developed cancer and withered away before their eyes.  Tiger had to be euthanized to prevent his suffering.  He nodded toward Craig in the affirmative to that question.

“Did you doubt that child’s grief?” Craig asked.

Bert remembered holding his daughter.  Her young body was wracked with sobs while she said goodbye for the last time as Tiger was taken into the back of the veterinary hospital.  Her grief had been unmasked, as open and unashamed as only a child’s could be. He shook his head, this time in the affirmative, unable to speak at that moment.

“Well, that’s how obviously and powerfully I felt Donna’s sorrow at having failed me.  She didn’t want to hurt me.  She had a weakness, just like an alcoholic or a gambler or a person with an eating disorder has a weakness.  The other 99.9% of the time she was the most wonderful woman in the world.”

Craig continued to talk about his love for Donna, and Bert watched his face as it was transformed from that of a man grieving the death of his wife and facing a hostile and injured old friend into one with a glow and a softness that spoke of fond affection and complete acceptance.  This didn’t make sense, and the thought entered his mind that Craig might be trying to bullshit him.”

“People just don’t do that man,” he protested.  “They just don’t do that.  I loved her too, and her betrayal gutted me like a fish.  I really did love her, you know.”

“It’s OK.  You don’t have to convince me,” Craig replied.  “I know that you did, and you may or may not know it, but she continued to love you too.”

Bert rose up out of his chair and stood in front of Craig.  “That’s bullshit!” he shouted.  “She couldn’t do what she did to me if she loved me.  Maybe she fooled you but she damn sure didn’t fool me.  I’m not buying any of this!”

“Maybe you should ask Becky,” Craig said without stirring from his chair.

Bert stopped still and asked, “How do you know about my wife?  Have you been snooping into my life?”

“No,” Craig replied.  “I haven’t been snooping.  I only know what Donna told me.  She’s followed your life from a distance, which has been a lot easier since the internet and social media came along.  She was excited when you went to medical school and she was happy when you were married.  She was proud of you when she saw the name “Bertram Laver, MD” somewhere on the internet.”  Craig paused at this moment and then said, “She prayed for you too man.”

“She prayed for me, shit,” Bert snorted.  “No god would listen to a prayer coming from someone like her.”

“Really?” Craig asked.  “Donna was exactly the kind of people that God would want to hear from.  Maybe you should ask Him about it yourself.”

Bert snorted again.  “Not hardly.  I believe in science.”

“Me too,” Craig said.  “Science is cool.  She believed in God though, and because of that I had to give it a thought myself.”

“That just doesn’t make any sense,” Bert said in what was beginning to become a mantra.  “That just doesn’t make any fucking sense.”

“Yeah,” Craig agreed.  “It sorta stands things on their heads, but I lived with her for a long time man.  I saw her every day.  She cheered for you like you were the high school football team.  She celebrated you from a distance.  Hell, I was a little jealous of you at first, until I realized that it wasn’t a contest.  She could love you as the person that she knew you to be while she loved me as her husband, and she could do it without diminishing the amount of either one.  I guess God is probably more impressed with that than he is with the petty shit that I have to offer him.”

Bert turned and walked to the edge of the shelf.  He looked to the southwest, across Viejas Reservation land and toward the fog bank that represented the marine gloom that had settled over San Diego that day.  This conversation had stood everything that he had believed about his first wife and former friend on its head.  Bert had arrived at this enchanted childhood hideout expecting if not intending to lash out at his old friend and his unfaithful wife once again.  The pound of flesh that he claimed almost forty years ago had cried out for a second helping.

Craig, however, had come with a story that he was completely unprepared for.  Donna had hurt him, but she didn’t stop loving him.  He had given her up in a big way, and then violently attacked his best friend out of rage generated by what seemed to be a double betrayal.  But according to Craig she had only failed, not betrayed.  He thought that again; She hadn’t betrayed, she had only failed.  She never stopped loving him.  She had never set out to hurt him in the first place.  She took no joy in his pain.  In fact, she had grieved the effect that her failure had caused him and followed his life, even praying for him!

And what did I do? he thought.  I rejected her.  Kicked her to the curb and then attacked my best friend, breaking his jaw and knocking him out.  Bert felt a riptide of emotions as grudges that he had nursed for almost forty years ran head-on into this amazing story that was only beginning to sink into his numbed brain.  He looked back at Craig and a new appreciation of him began to chip away at the cold anger that had owned his memories of his old friend for too long.

Craig had forgiven the failures of his wife and loved her anyway.  Not only that, but one of the first things that he did after Donna died was to reach out and try to mend the long-severed relationship between himself and Bert.  Bert stared at Craig, studying him as he sat in his chair.  Craig seemed to sag in his chair as if he was tired from carrying a heavy load for too long.

Of course he’s tired, Bert thought.  He’s been mourning for his wife.  I remember how wonderful it was to be with her before I failed to understand her the way that Craig did.  That has to be hard.  How would I react if Becky died?  I would feel like I was carrying the world on my shoulders too. Of course I would.  But he asked for me to meet him, and here at this spot no less, so soon after her passing.  I believe that I might be a part of that load that he’s carrying.  He buries his wife one day and then as soon as he is able he writes me a letter.  What sort of a friend have I denied to myself for so many years?  What sort of an asshole have I been?

     Bert walked back across the shelf and sat back down in his chair.  He didn’t look at Craig; in fact, he didn’t look at anything.  He leaned back into the nylon webbing of the chair and closed his eyes.  Again he let his mind return to the vision of the people who had used this place for millenia before it was taken from them.

Something separate from his normal senses kicked in as it had here so often in the past.  Once again he could smell the smoke of the cooking fire and the meat that was sputtering as it roasted above it.  He could hear the children playing, the men talking about hunting and seasonal relocation of their encampment, while the women talked of gathering foods and herbs, tending to the huts they lived in and managing the cuts and illnesses of their families.  He heard them making love at night and making amends among each other when strife would arise and threaten the security of their community.

Bert had always connected with this place in this way.  He had at first been surprised by it and was never able to explain it.  Today he felt like it was talking to him, telling him that love for an imperfect wife was not so different than love for an imperfect friend.  Craig had shown him both of these things, and Bert now felt that now he believed that love like that was possible.  He wanted to know how it felt.

Bert’s backpack lay next to his chair.  He reached into an open pocket and retrieved a stainless steel flask.  He unscrewed the cap and took a short drink, appreciating the warmth of the whiskey as it flowed down his esophagus and into his stomach.  He then turned and extended the flask toward his friend.  “Are you up for a snort?  We haven’t shared a drink for, what?  Almost forty years.”

One Eyed Jack Re-Do

In the fall of 1972 I was fortunate enough to begin my junior year of college at Sonoma State College, now Sonoma State University, in the town of Cotati, California.  Cotati was a wide spot in U.S. Highway 101, about one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Sonoma State was the newest of the California State Colleges then and there were no dormitories yet, so students were left to find lodging as best they could in Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, or somewhere in the rural countryside where the locals would take in a student or two to augment their income.

By pure luck I was able to find an apartment in a two building complex that was about 200 yards across a flat field from the college.   A narrow asphalt path led from just across the street to the west parking lot of the school.  This complex housed something like 200 students and was conducive to almost anything except studying.  My unit consisted of a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms and one bath.  Three of us were lodged in that unit, and on a roll of the dice I ended up alone in one bedroom while my roommates Roy-Boy and Animal shared the other.  It was a good arrangement, from my point of view, and we all got along very well, considering that each one of us was, in our own very unique and individual ways, crazy as loons.

The focus of community for the residents of Building A, where my apartment was located, was the swimming pool.  The pool was in a concrete courtyard area that also contained a fire pit, a picnic bench and several deck chairs.  On nearly every evening, whether during autumn, winter or spring, many if not all of Building A’s residents would be found by the pool.  Many of us would swim, some in swimsuits and others in a state of nature, while others would tend a roaring fire and still others would talk politics or flirt or weave dreams about where they hoped to be in five or ten or forty years down the road.

On several occasions we would decide to make music.  A couple of the students possessed and were able to play instruments.  Roy and Jan played the guitar.  Lenny played a clarinet.  I pounded on a big, red conga drum.  Others played pots and pans and telephone books and anything else that they could turn into an improvised musical instrument.  On such nights the cacophony produced by anything that could be blown into, scraped across, plucked, thumped or tickled would waft out into the dark Sonoma night, accompanied by the voices of those who’s preference for instruments of auditory torture ran to the vocal cords.  As a result, our courtyard would frequently look and sound like a couple of the circles of Dante’s vision of Inferno.

One of the members of this fiendish ensemble was Jack.  Jack was a tomcat, and I mean 100% tomcat.  I assumed that he had once been somebody’s pet because he was not overly skittish once he became accustomed to us. Jack would hang around us looking for a handout or any morsel that might fall to the concrete paving of the pool area.  We would also frequently find him diving in our dumpster looking for gustatory jewels which we had carelessly thrown away out of the ignorance of our abundance.

Jack was a large cat but there wasn’t much fat on him.  Lean at the hip, with a ragged coat and a tattered ear, he was a veteran of many a scrape with plenty of evidence of battles lost as well as battles won.  The most visible of his battle scars was his right eye. That eye always drooped to a greater or lesser extent from one day to the next, and was always tearing or weeping a fluid which made it look like he was crying.  The wounded eye neither got much better nor much worse as time went on, and we just accepted that feature as part of his essential ‘Jackness’.

A couple who lived in my building, Jan and Sheila, took a particular shine to Jack and began to feed him when he wasn’t out catting around, and eventually the attraction of a warm bed and steady meals was sufficient to entice Jack to more or less move in with them.  These two people were some of my best friends at that time, so I got a chance to get to know Jack pretty well.  One afternoon we were sitting in their living room petting and sharing treats with Jack when Sheila said “We ought to take Jack to a vet and get him checked out.  He probably has worms, and maybe we could get his eye fixed.”

“I would love to Honey”, responded Jan, “but how are we going to do that?  We’re eating on food stamps as it is, you know.”

“It couldn’t cost that much” I chimed in, demonstrating how little I knew about such things.  “Maybe if we just squeeze a few bucks out of our food budgets next month we could get a little done for him.  Then we could do more for him each time we scraped a some more money together’.

“I think it’ll take more than that” said Sheila.  ‘I’ll call a vet tomorrow and see what this kind of thing would cost”.

“That sounds like a plan Babe” said Jan, and then we dropped that subject in order to pursue weightier matters, such as the dull roar that was beginning to pick up over at the poolside.

It was actually a few days later that Sheila obtained the information that we needed, and the number set us back on our heels.  “The vet said it would take anywhere from $80 to $150 to do the kind of check-up that we talked about.  Any work that he had to do on the eye would be more.”

We sat there thunderstruck, looking at each other in bewilderment. Jack sat over on a pillow, fresh from having a mouthful of dried food and looking at us with his perpetual ‘wink’ as Jan called it.  At that time my entire budget was $125 from the G.I. Bill check that I got every month.  That included rent, food, and the all-important beer ration.  Jan and Sheila had less than me, therefore having to rely on the already-mentioned food stamps.

“Maybe we could take up a collection” offered Jan.  “Everybody else likes Jack too.”

“Yeah, they like him as long as they don’t have to pay for him” I said. “Their budgets are the same as ours; beer, rent and food.  Taking care of Jack probably isn’t a line item on too many of their budgets.”

 

Jan, Sheila and I fell to cudgelling our brains, trying to find a way to squeeze enough money out of our budgets to give some veterinary attention to a worn and dusty old tomcat.  We sat silently, each in his or her own thoughts, and I reflected on my own necessities.  Beer, of course, came first.  I was 23 years old and a student, after all.  Rent was also non-negotiable, so I began to review my food budget.

I was already very thrifty in the food department.  My mother had grown up in deepest Appalachia, and my father in rural Georgia during the Great Depression.  Both of them knew how to stretch a penny; in fact, Dad used to joke that Mom could squeeze a nickel so tightly that an Indian would come out riding a buffalo.  Dried rice and beans, cheaper cuts of meat and other inexpensive products would be prepared by Mom in such a way that I grew up eating tasty meals and never knew that we would be considered by many to have been marginally poor.

While attending Sonoma State I put that tradition to good use.  Pinto beans were 19 cents per pound.  Ham hocks were 25 cents per pound back then, before white people outside of the South discovered them.  Garlic and onions and salt and pepper were almost as good as free.  With no more than 75 cents I could cook a pot of beans that I would eat out of for three days, if that pot was otherwise left alone.  Usually, however, it was not left alone.

First my roommates discovered my beans, and then the word got around to the others in our community.  The beans were available to whoever wanted to come in and enjoy a bowl.  Another bowl was placed on the counter next to the refrigerator, where people would leave whatever change they had in their pockets so that I could keep the bean pot full.  This was a generally agreeable situation for nearly everyone in Building A, but one day a glitch appeared in our well-oiled machine.

One afternoon when I was working on a paper on Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the site of the ancient city of Jericho, I heard the door open and close and a female voice cry out my name.  “Back here!” I shouted, wondering about this innovation of any female person looking for me.  I heard rapid footsteps and soon found myself confronted by an obviously agitated Maureen, one of my co-tenants and the significant other of Joe.  Maureen was pure Irish, and at this moment her Irish was up.

“You have got to stop Joe from eating here!” she barked.

“What are you talking about, Mo?” I asked, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.

“I’m talking about your damned beans,” she replied.  When Joe’s been eating them I can’t be around him.  He’s peeling the paint off of the walls.”

“I’m sorry Mo, but that’s something that you guys are going to have to work out.  I can’t very well share my food with everyone else but tell Joe to bug off.”

“Isn’t there something that you can add to them, or something that he could take to tone them down?  I’m telling you, I can’t live with him if he keeps this up.”

I invited Maureen to take a seat and tried to calm her down.  I was somewhat successful and we talked for a while.  Maureen and Joe were two of my favorite people in that complex and I didn’t want to cause a strain in their relationship or a rupture between Maureen and myself.  Finally I threw out an idea.

“Why don’t you have a couple of bowls yourself; you know, fight fire with fire?  I’m getting hungry and wouldn’t mind some company.”

Maureen looked at me blankly for a moment, and then a devilish grin began to grow at the edges of her mouth.  She then said, “Sure.  Who knows, I might like them too.”

Like them she did, and in Maureen’s virgin gastrointestinal tract the more unpleasant components of those beans frolicked like young sheep gamboling in a field of lush grasses and wild flowers in the springtime.  Full of pinto beans and the promise of retribution, Maureen returned to their desecrated love nest and waited for her lunch to reach it’s full measure of pay back potency.

All of building A knew when the knockout blow was delivered.  In the still of the early evening, before the nightly party began by the pool, Joe’s tortured voice cut through the cool, late autumn air.  “Jeez, Mo.  Did something crawl up your ass and die?” His question was answered by a fiendish cackle, followed by another sound which was something like ‘braack!’”  A moment later we heard their door open and then slam shut as Joe exited from their apartment in search of relief and a breath of fresh air.

From our patio we could hear all of this transpire, and the three of us were soon laughing so hard that we were almost crying.  Once I had composed myself enough I went around our patio toward Mo and Joe’s front door.  As I looked through a window I could see Maureen dancing gaily in the kitchen.  I knocked on that window, which was open, and got Maureen’s attention.  She broke into a big smile when she saw me and waved for me to come in.  I declined that invitation, which made her smile even more broadly.  She gave me a double thumbs up, which I returned with a smile of my own, and retraced my steps back to the relative safety and breathability of my own apartment.

Peace did eventually return to the Mo and Joe unit, and Mo came over often to learn from me how to make those wonderful beans and other cheap meals.  It was always a little dangerous to go over to Joe and Mo’s place, however, after she began to cook that wonderful stuff herself.

This and other food memories ran through my mind as Jan and Sheila and I thought about how to get Jack patched up.  As I pointed out earlier, my beer budget was untouchable.  Everybody has priorities.  Rent, too, was a dead-end street.  And as for food?  Well I had to eat.  Everybody has to eat food.  Everybody needs to eat food.  Everybody – – -.  Wait!  Everybody has to eat but not everybody likes to cook food!  They like to eat it but they don’t like to cook it.

There the answer was, staring us in the face from the very beginning.  “Let’s have a benefit dinner for Old Jack,” I said.  Jan and Sheila saw the wisdom of that suggestion immediately.

“What will we cook?” Sheila asked.

“What will you two cook?” Jan asked.  “You know that I’m useless in the kitchen.”

“How about spaghetti?” I asked.  “I know how to make a lot of it, and if I go cheap on the meat I can stretch it even further than usual.”

We struck hands on the deal and began to make plans for our dinner.  We started saving our pennies wherever we could, and Jan and I even cut into our previously untouchable beer allowance, so powerful was our determination to make this dinner happen.  Jan was a gifted calligrapher, and he began to produce exquisite posters to put up throughout the complex announcing a spaghetti feed to benefit Jack.  Interest ran high, additional dimes and quarters flowed into the fund, and the progress began to make it look like the enterprise might really work.

On the morning of the big day I began to prepare a large kettle of my own sauce recipe: ground beef and pork, tomato sauce and paste, onions, garlic, mushrooms, olives, peppers and a pinch or two of various spices, simmered for a few hours.  In the afternoon, in an even larger kettle, we threw the noodles into the boiling water as the time to serve drew near.  After letting them boil for a few minutes I began to pluck individual noodles out and throw them on the wall.  When the noodle would stick to the wall it was done.

Sheila opened the door and the first of a horde began to file through.  Jan snatched noodles out of the kettle and I applied dippers full of sauce while Sheila passed the hat.  Technically the food was free, but Sheila put a serious stink eye on any chiselers who thought that he’d get away with a free meal.  People filled every corner of our unit and spilled out into the courtyard and beyond.  We served every bit of that spaghetti except for the plate that I saved for myself.  Jan and Sheila did not indulge, as they were vegetarians. After the last diner had left we counted our take.  Minus the cost of the raw materials we had raised $78 and some change, not a small amount in those days.

The next day Sheila made an appointment with a vet, and on the appointed date we cornered Jack and wrapped him up in a towel so that he wouldn’t do too much damage to us on the way.  We piled into my old Dodge Lancer and began the trip to the vet.  Jack liked this idea about as much as Joe liked Maureen’s revenge, and he was pretty edgy when we carried him into a room filled with other cats and some dogs too. Our turn finally came and we stepped up to the counter and met Doctor Hendricks.

“Well then, who’s cat is this?” he asked.

We looked at each other and said, “Well, Doc, he’s nobody’s cat, really”.

He looked at us kind of funny and said “So you want me to work on nobody’s cat?”

“Well Doc,” I explained.   “He’s a stray that we all have come to like, and so we want to fix him up some if we can.”

Sheila then told him the story of the benefit dinner and added,  “We raised $78 and some change and can each of us add a few dollars more if we have to.  What can you do for Jack with that?”

The doctor stood there for a few moments and repeated the story to make sure that he understood it.  Once he decided that he did understand it he said, “OK.  Let me keep him until this afternoon and I’ll see what we can do”.  We thanked the doctor profusely and then went about our day’s business.

About four in the afternoon we returned to pick up a bathed, wormed, vaccinated, and thoroughly mortified Jack.  The veterinarian told us that the damage to his eye was permanent, but that he could see out of it well enough and that it did not seem to cause pain and would not negatively impact him if he remained indoors.  Jan and Sheila decided then and there  that Jack would be their indoor cat from that moment until the end of his natural life.

“How much did this cost?” asked a nervous Sheila.  She knew that the extent of the doctor’s work was probably a good deal more than we had.

“How much did you say you raised?” the vet asked us.

“Seventy eight dollars and some change,” Sheila answered.

“Then the bill comes to seventy eight dollars,” he said.  “And change”.

With profuse expressions of gratitude we returned to Jan and Sheila’s unit and turned Jack loose to sulk in his corner and lick his wounded pride until dinnertime.

I remained friends with Jan and Sheila for a few years until my gypsy lifestyle led me to new fields.  The last thing I remember of Jack was him doing one of his favorite things.  Jan and I had opened a couple of beers and rolled a doobie the size of a Havana cigar.  We were enjoying both, while Jan’s excellent stereo boomed out album after album of Pink Floyd. Jack loved that band and would sit still as a statue about four feet away from a suitcase-sized speaker, winking his wounded right eye at Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and the boys for as long as the music would play.

I was told that Jack lived a couple more years after I left the scene.  He died a happy and loved cat.

PURPLE HEART

PURPLE HEART

It was 9:45 in the evening and nearly time for the Enlisted Men’s Club to close.  Almost two dozen boisterous soldiers of the 537th Company, 63rd Battalion of the Eleventh Transportation Command were alerted that they had fifteen minutes to slurp down the last of their cold beer and return to their hooches for the night.  What they did once they returned to their prefabricated aluminum quarters was their own business.

The EM Club was a wooden structure that was slightly larger and a little bit taller than a residential hooch, which could sleep twenty four men.  It was constructed of materials scrounged from the stream of goods that flowed through the river port operated by the 63rd.  The wooden planks that formed the sides of the building, the aluminum that made the roof, the fiberglass insulation that stood guard between the revelers inside and the grueling heat that ruled the daytime over the flat Mekong Delta outside; all of it was collected from shipments destined elsewhere but which lost their way in the fog of war and ended up at the 537th.

Larry Ordonez tended the bar, sold jerky and pretzels and whatever else came through the supply line legitimately or otherwise, and opened several hundred cans of beer in a twelve hour day.  He was taller than average at 6 feet 1 inch, and weighed around 220 pounds, making him imposing enough to prevent most trouble from breaking out in his club.

The customers were mostly smaller and younger than Larry; hardly more than boys.  It was 1967 and the draft was still feeding young men into the war in Vietnam, men who in some cases had been high school seniors going to baseball games and drinking sodas at the Tastee Freeze, and hoping that some pretty girl would go with them to the Senior Prom less than nine months earlier.  These boys in olive drab fatigues frequently got drunk and got stupid but only rarely did they get rowdy.  Larry’s presence went a long way toward ensuring that things stayed like that.

Larry’s assistant was Mike O’Reilly, a private first class who had once been a buck sergeant.  Mike was not as tall as Larry but he weighed more, and there was little fat on him.  He had previously served in some unit of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade where he had committed some act serious enough to get him reduced in rank to private, but not so serious as to result in spending time in the infamous Long Binh Jail that was known to all soldiers in-country simply as LBJ.  Nobody knew what that infraction was and nobody asked.  If Mike wanted anybody to know he would tell them, and he wasn’t talking about it.

Ten o’clock struck and Larry yanked three times on the cord that was attached to a brass bell.  The rich tone of the bell cut through the white noise of the small building, announcing that it was time to take their party elsewhere, or perhaps go and crawl into their bunks and get some sleep before starting another hard twelve hour shift at the port in a few hours.  The bell had been removed from a small Vietnamese freighter that had been rocketed and sunk at the port many months earlier.  It sank right in front of Deep Draft Berth 3, rendering that dock unusable for 2 1/2 weeks until it could be hauled out of the water by a huge floating crane and placed in a yard to be salvaged.  The bell disappeared, only to reappear in Larry’s EM Club, no questions asked.

The men drank up and filed noisily out through the door.  The last man through was Phil Ostercamp, a soldier who usually occupied a table by himself in a corner of the club.  Even when other men shared a table with Phil he still drank alone.  Phil was 22 years old, making him senior to many of the other occupants of the club.  He was deeply tanned wherever skin could be reached by the sun.  He never wore shorts or went about shirtless as many of the others did.  Fatigues and boots and a floppy bush hat were all that most people had ever seen him in.  He congregated with others very little and spoke less.

At last the EM Club was empty.  Larry and Mike began to clean the tables of empty beer cans and to wipe the tabletops and bar counter clean of spilled beer, cigarette butts and other detritus left behind by the thirsty man-children.  At least tonight there was no vomit on the floor.

After a wait of about ten minutes a knock was heard at the door.  Larry crossed the room and opened the door, allowing Westy Dunfee, Mark Morrissey and a new kid, Earl or something like that, to enter.  Larry had seen this new guy around recently but had not interacted with him at all.  He had heard other men speaking to him and they called him something, and it wasn’t Earl.  Nicknames were common in the Army, so that did not strike Larry as unusual.

“Welcome to the After Hours Club boys,” Larry said with a grin and a flourish.  The three filed into the room and waved at Mike.

“How do Fellas,” Mike said as he waved back.  “Y’all here to help clean up?”

“It’ll cost you a beer,” Mark called back.

“Help y’self,” Mike responded.  “Y’all know where the cooler and the brooms are.”

Westy walked toward the cooler while Mark went to the back room and retrieved two brooms and a mop.  The third soldier stood by the bar and waited to see what was going to happen next.  Westy extracted three beers and opened them.  Mark threw one of the brooms to the new person  and gave the other to Westy, keeping the mop for himself.  Westy handed out the open beers and then turned back to Larry and Mike.

“Fellas, I think you all know Weasel here,” he said as he waved at the new person in the group.

“Oh, I thought that I heard you called Earl somewhere,” Larry said.

“That’s what my parents call me,” the man replied.  “But I’m just fine with Weasel.”

Mike laughed and Weasel turned menacingly toward him.  “You got a problem with my name?” he growled.

“Whoa, hold on now,” Westy said.  “Mike don’t mean no offense, and you don’t want none of him anyway.”

“Yeah,” Mike said.  “No offense intended, but where’d you get that name?  Ain’t everyone who comes in here calls himself Weasel.  Ain’t got no badgers or squirrels or raccoons neither.”

“Huh!” Larry snorted.  “We got no shortage of squirrels that come in here night after night.”

“Yeah, but they don’t call themselves Squirrel now, do they?” Mike asked and then turned to to Weasel and asked, “How’d you come by that name, boy?”

Weasel seemed to bristle at the word ‘boy’ but answered without making a fuss over it.  “When I was at Fort Hood I was in a shit detail company.  We didn’t have nothin’ official to do, so they would call us out to morning formation, count us and send us to breakfast, and then we were supposed to go back to the barracks and wait for somebody to pick us for some crappy job that somebody else in a real unit didn’t want to do.

“I didn’t have time for that shit, so I would just vanish like most of the other guys, only they would go to the snack bar or the PX or other predictable places where they would get pinched by the First Sergeant and put on those details.  I knew how to not be found.  Top Sarge hated me for that and called me a weasel.  I kind of liked that, so I ran with it.”

Larry and Mike laughed out loud at Weasel’s story and that seemed to take a little of the edge off of his belligerency for the moment.  The men fell to wiping and sweeping and mopping the floor, and in a very little time the little wooden building was mostly clean and ready for the next day’s work.  The five men sat at a round table and began their second beers.  The air conditioner that poked through the wall was no longer working against over two dozen sweating human bodies and had begun to make headway against the heat that reigned sovereign over this corner of the world.  Weasel pulled what looked like an unfiltered cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it.  He took a deep drag on the ‘cigarette’ and drew it into the bottom of his lungs.

“Ah!” Westy said.  “Pass it over, my friend.”

As Weasel passed the joint to Westy, Mike asked him, “How long you been in-country, boy?”

“I got in a month and a half ago,” Weasel replied.  “And I got your boy hanging.  Don’t call me that again.”

“Whoa, simmer down son,” Mike replied.  “No need to get yourself hurt over nothing at all.  We’re all friends here, less’n you don’t wanna be.”

“Easy now,” Westy chimed in.  “Mike’s from the South, and I don’t mean Atlanta or Nashville.  Boy’s just a term of endearment where he comes from.  That right Mike?”

“Right as rain.  I’m from the town of Adel in South By-God Georgia,” Mike said with an easy smile.  He was not overly worried about Weasel.

“Yeah, he don’t speak good English,” Mark added.

“Like you do?” Larry asked Mark, who then flipped some condensation from his cold beer can at him.

Weasel seemed to accept the explanation of Mike’s use of the word ‘boy’ and also noticed that nobody at the table was impressed with his machismo.  He subsequently ratcheted down his prickly attitude.  The joviality of the other four men and the effects of the strong Cambodian marijuana that they were smoking soon made for a more mellow atmosphere in general.  Mike passed on the joint as it came around to him saying, “No thanks.  I’d rather get my high out’n a bottle than smokin’ them funny cigarettes.”

“Cool,” Weasel said as the joint came back to him.  “More for me.”  But you could tell that the animus had departed from him.  He took a long drag on the joint and passed it along.

 

The conversation the drifted from topic to topic, but as usual the three younger men spent a lot of time telling tales of their sexual prowess back in the world before being drawn into Uncle Sam’s all-expenses-paid vacation in the tropics, and how they were going to resume their studly ways when they returned after their tours of duty in Veitnam.  Larry and Mike, having heard such stories many times from the younger soldiers, listened without letting their doubts show.  Weasel, being the youngest and most given to general machismo, painted a most vivid picture of his exploits.

He lit another joint and took a long drag.  After holding the smoke in his lungs for nearly a minute he exhaled and asked, “Who was that guy that was sitting in the corner?”

“What guy?” Mark asked.

“What corner?” Westy asked at the same time.

“That corner over there,” Weasel replied, pointing to the table in question.

Larry followed the line of Weasel’s pointing finger and then replied, “Oh, that was Phil Ostercamp.  That’s sort of his private table.

“What’s his trip?” Weasel asked.  “How come he gets his own table?  He sits there and doesn’t say nothing, just looks at his drink and doesn’t hardly even drink it.  It’s kinda spooky.”

“Phil’s a short-timer,” Westy explained, referring to the soldier’s eminent return to the United States, or at the very least his departure from Vietnam.

“So he’s short,” Weasel replied.  “That doesn’t entitle him to his own table.  The dude could still talk to somebody.  How come I never seen him at the port?”

“He’s usually on convoy, so you won’t see him at the port,” Mark explained.  “He’s sort of crazy; always pulling gunner on a jeep.  Volunteers for it too.”

 

“I thought that MP’s provided convoy security,” Weasel said.

“They usually do, and sometimes the 11th Armored Cav does,” Mark replied.  There’s gaps though, and he signed up for the duty.  It turned out that he’s pretty good at it, too.  Now he’s working a 60 in the back of a rear jeep all the time.”

“Dude must be a nut bag,” Weasel observed.

“Not really,” Larry interjected.  “Working where I do I get to know a lot of people around here.  Phil’s all right, or at least he used to be.  He was never the life of the party but he was as cool as anyone else was.”

“So what turned gloomy as a grave digger?” Weasel asked.

“Six months ago he got a Dear John letter,” Larry explained.

“Oh, that sucks,” Westy observed.

“That ain’t the half of it,” Larry said and then continued.  “His wife was pregnant when he was sent over here.  He expected to go see his wife and baby in Hawaii when his R&R came around.  They send married guys to Hawaii to be with their families, you know.”

“Yeah, we know that,” Mark said.  “Me?  I’d rather go to Bangkok,”

“Well, you’re not married and a father, which is probably a good thing,” Larry replied and then continued his story.  “Anyway, Phil got the letter two weeks before his R&R started.  His wife told him that the baby wasn’t really his and she wanted a divorce so that she could marry the baby’s real father.”

“Holy shit!” Weasel exclaimed.  “I’d go home and shoot somebody.”

“They don’t value shooting people back home the way that they do here,” Mike observed.  “Phil talked about doing just that, back when he talked much at all.  He told me later that he crossed that option off of his to-do list for when he got home; said that rotting in jail didn’t sound like a great future.  That was a few months back.  I don’t know what he’s thinking anymore.”

“So he likes to ride gunner now,” Mark said.  “That much I know about him.  What’s he doing?  Is he trying to take his revenge out on the Cong or trying to get himself killed?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Larry answered.  “Maybe the one or maybe the other, or maybe even both at the same time.  They say that he doesn’t flinch in an ambush.  He stands there looking for movement or muzzle flash or anything to guide him, and then just whales away with that 60.  Shit’s flying past him like yellow jackets to a piece of meat on a picnic table and stuff’s blowing up all over the place; he just stands there and makes ‘em pay.”

“I knew some fellas like that in the infantry,” Mike said.  “The gates of hell would be open’n up and they’d just be like taking their sweet time and pouring it right back to the bad guys.  Crazy som’bitches!  Some of ‘em would get lit up but others seemed to be born with a four leaf clover up their asses and never got touched.”

“Ain’t no way that I’d let any chick screw with my head that way!” Weasel declared.

“You ain’t gonna know that until some chick does screw with your head, junior,” Mike replied.  “Phil loved that girl; least he said he did, ’n I suppose that’s true.  It’s not like breaking up with your eighth grade girlfriend, or it shouldn’t be.”

“Especially when there’s a baby involved,” Larry added.

“Especially when you thought that the baby was yours, and it wasn’t,” Mike continued.  “At least that’s what he was told, but then she lied about other things, so how do you believe that this or any other part is true?”

“That stuff will really mess with your head,” Larry said.  “You don’t know how you’ll react until you’re in the middle of it.  I’ve heard it a couple ‘a times over here, being a bartender and all.  And the thing is that it got worse.”

“The hell you say!” Westy exclaimed.  “How does it get worse than all of that?”

“Well, Phil was in shock and didn’t know how to deal with that information.  Two weeks after getting the letter he went on that R&R, not knowing what the hell else to do.  It was like he was numb and couldn’t make any kind of a decision, or even process what was happening around him, so he did whatever came next when R&R came around.  He  went and stayed in that place that the Army had secured for him and his family, and it empty as a tomb.  I think that’s when he really snapped.”

“Why didn’t he just pick up somebody on the beach or in a bar and spend the week with her?” Weasel asked.  “Thats what I would have done.”  The others at the table either scoffed or remained silent after hearing that.  Weasel scowled at the rejection of his attempted logic and then Larry continued his story.

“When he got back here it was like he was as empty as that house in Hawaii was.  He volunteered for the gunner position every chance he could.  Once they saw how good at it he was they put him there on every convoy.  Now he’s got three weeks to go before he goes home or wherever they send him.”

“I heard that they sometimes send the really crazy ones to the Philippines or Korea or somewhere so that they can try to straighten out their heads a little before the go home,” Mark said.

“Yeah, I heard that too, but I don’t know if it’s true,” Larry said as he picked up his story again.  “They offered to let him stay back at base camp the last three weeks but he wasn’t interested.  He’ll go on convoy the day before he goes home if they’ll let him.”

“Wow, that crazy bastard walking around on the streets back in the Real World.  That’s not the best idea that I’ve ever heard,” Westy observed.  “Maybe it would be better if he succeeded in getting himself killed in the next three weeks.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Mike said with a frown.  It was obvious that he was not impressed with Westy’s comment.  “I don’t know if he’s really trying to get himself killed.  This is just my opinion, but I don’t think he hates the Cong and I don’t think that he really wants to get killed.  It’s just that he doesn’t care if he gets killed or not.  I think he feels like he’s dead already, in the middle of his soul at least, and he’s just getting into the thickest part of things so that he can feel a little bit alive again, even for just a while.  Unless you’ve been in that shit, you can’t really know about it.”

“Well, I think that’s enough of this for me,” Mark said.  “I’ve got to get a little shut-eye before we have to do it all over again tomorrow.  You all coming or staying?”

“I’m done,” Westy said.

“Me too,” Larry agreed.  “I’ll lock the place up.”

“Light weights,” Weasel said, but he got up too and walked to the door with Mark and Westy.  On their way back to their hooch the three friends paid little attention to the flares in the nighttime sky just beyond the perimeter of their battalion.  Flares were not an uncommon thing in the Vietnamese sky after dark.  Upon their arrival at their hooch however they discovered a buzz of activity

“What’s up?” Westy asked a soldier who occupied the bunk next to his own.

“Where’ve you been man?” the soldier replied.  “Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Phil Ostercamp took one from a sniper.”

“Kiss my ass!  You’re shitting me, right?  I saw him just an hour ago.”

“Yeah?  Well, it doesn’t take an hour to get your ass dusted by a sniper.”

“Oh, crap.  How is he?  Did they waste him?”

“I don’t know.  He was talking when I saw him, but he was blubbering shit that I couldn’t hear well.  Bleeding like a stuck pig, too.”

Mark and Weasel heard that conversation and came across the hooch to where Westy was talking with the other soldier.  “So he got his wish, huh?” he said.

“What wish?” the soldier asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Mark replied and returned to his bunk.  Weasel had the bunk next to Mark’s.  He sat down on the edge of the steel bed and looked at Mark, his face white as a sheet.  Mark noticed that the bravado and macho talk had escaped from Weasel like gas out of a ruptured balloon.

“Yeah kid.  The shit’s real here.  This ain’t no damned John Wayne movie.  People get hurt and people die, and that happens in a lot of ways.  I hope that bullet didn’t kill Phil.  Hell, I hope that maybe it brought him back to life somehow.  Either way we gotta do our stuff again tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep.”

BAM!

“Aw, crud.  Here comes Willie.”

Enzo Acosta was looking out through the window of the Central Avenue Recreation Center office where he was seated with Clyde Bartow, Brian Cortner and the new Assistant Recreation Leader, Mary Fillippi.  Over the teeter-totters and beyond the swings  could be seen the large, shambling figure of Willie Starnes slouching toward the nerve center of the place that the neighborhood kids simply called “The Park.”

“Man, why doesn’t his parents move or something?” Clyde asked.

“We should be so lucky,” Brian replied.

“Why didn’t is parents practice birth control?” Enzo asked, and all three boys let out a collective groan.

“Why do you dislike him so much?” Mary asked.  She was the newly-hired assistant recreation leader, recently graduated from Arizona State University and just beginning to climb up the ladder of civil service.

“He’s kind of a jerk,” Enzo replied.  “He thinks he’s being funny all of the time, but he’s the only one who’s laughing.”

“So why don’t you tell him he’s not funny?” Mary suggested.  “Maybe he needs to hear that so that he can change his act.”

“For starters, we don’t tell him that because he can kick our as – – -; our butts, I mean,” Clyde replied.  “He’s not smart, but he’s big and he’s mean.  Nobody wants to be his friend, but nobody wants to be his enemy either.”

“Well, I’m sure that Mr. Peterson doesn’t allow any bullying here at the rec center, and I won’t either.”

“You won’t see it; not really.  He’s careful not to do anything that’ll get him busted.”

“Why do you hang out with him then?  I’ve seen you all shooting hoops or goofing off out in the field.  If you don’t want him bothering you here, just say so.”

“That might make it better here,” Brian said.  “But it would make life just that much more hazardous at school and everywhere else.”

Willie had reached the Park office by this time and, seeing the three boys and Mary  inside, he walked through the door to join them.

“Hi foxy lady.  You must be the new rec leader,” he said to Mary, and as he did so he reached out with his left hand and popped Brian in the back of the head, simultaneously saying “Bam!”

“You can call me Miss Fillippi,” Mary said with a voice tinged with icyness.  “And I will not allow you to hit people here.

“Oh, that’s just a game that we play,” he replied to her, and then looked at Brian and the other two boys and asked, “Isn’t it?”

They all agreed that it was, and in this case what they said was nearly the truth.  The game began as one in which surprise was the point.  A person might throw a large, soft rubber ball at another who was not looking, or perhaps snap someone’s shoulder with a rubber band.  At the point when surprise, and occasionally mild discomfort, occurred, the initiator of the surprise would shout “Bam,” and was thereby excused from retaliation unless and until the victim could create a surprise of their own.

It was a harmless game and fun, at least until willie learned about it.  Then punches in the shoulder or a basketball thrown at your face became the “joke.”  Once, Willie caught Brian leaning back in a folding chair with his feet up on the seat of a wooden park bench.  He was balancing on the two back legs of the chair and had his hands clasped behind his neck.  They were outside of the Park office in a covered area where hop scotch and four square might still be played on infrequent rainy days.

Brian was talking about his plans to study acting and then go to Los Angeles when he graduated from high school in two years.  That really was his dream, and he was trying to impress Mary Ellen Zinner with his knowledge of how Hollywood worked and how he would climb the ladder.  Mary Ellen was quite taken by Brian’s seeming knowledge and Brian was quite taken with Mary Ellen.  In fact, at that moment his whole attention was on her alone.

Willie saw a golden opportunity and removed his shoes and socks.  He filled one sock with sand and tied it off at the ankle.  Then he edged close to where Brian was leaning back and describing one of his life dreams to another of his life dreams.  When he was no more than six feet away he threw the heavy sock at Brian and connected with him squarely in the crotch.

Surprise and pain combined to cause Brian to jerk back, which resulted in him tumbling backwards and hitting the asphalt with the back of his head, right in the middle of the four square court.  “Bam!” Willie shouted and then he laughed.  Nobody else laughed with him, and Mary knelt down and asked Brian if he was OK.  His head and his nuts hurt and he was as embarrassed as he could possibly be, and he briefly considered getting up and punching Willie in the face, even though that would probably amount to something like suicide.  Mary Ellen was showing concern for him however, and that unexpected pleasure gave him pause from getting up and at least trying to beat the living snot out of Willie Starnes; something that he was fairly sure that he could never accomplish.  The memory of that day however would leave a sour knot in Brian’s stomach for a long time to come.

“Come on,” Willie said, interrupting Brian’s reminiscence of that humiliating event.  “Somebody check out a basketball and let’s shoot some hoops.”  Clyde offered Mary Fillippi his wallet for a basketball and soon they had a two-on-two game going on in the basketball court.  Brian ended up on a team with Willie, and between plays Willie asked him, “What’s Miss Prissy-Pants’ problem?”

“Huh?” Brian asked.  “What are you talking about?”

“The hottie in the office.  What makes her so unfriendly?”

“What?  Who?  Mary?  Shoot, I don’t know what you mean.  She’s OK enough with me.  Maybe she doesn’t like to be called a foxy lady.”

“Shit!  Every chick likes to be called foxy lady.”

“I wouldn’t know.  I guess some might like it if they know the person who’s calling them that.  I suppose you would have to ask her.”

“Uh-uh.  Nope.  I’ve got a better idea.  You guys play with yourselves for a while.”

Willie flashed a smirk, thinking that he had just delivered a clever line.  Then he walked through the gate in the corner of the basketball court and disappeared west on Bernardo Street.

“Where’s he going?” Enzo asked.

“Who cares?” Clyde replied.  “Let’s just enjoy his absence.

They continued to play some games that did not require teams, eventually forgetting about Willie.  The break was a pleasant one, but it was much too short.  Far sooner than they would have liked, Willie was seen pushing through the gate and re-entering the court.

“You miss me?” he asked the three boys.

“Does Europe miss the plague?” Enzo replied, and then said “Bam!”

Willie laughed along with the others but punched Enzo in the shoulder anyway.  The look on Enzo’s face suggested that there was an internal debate going on in his mind whether or not the time had come to retaliate against Willie whether he had a chance of doing so successfully or not.  If Willie noticed that look, he chose to ignore it.

“I guess I settled Prissy-Pants’ hash for her,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Clyde asked.

“I went to the Market Spot and bought a potato, and I shoved it into the tailpipe of her car.”

“Why did you do that?” Brian asked.  “What’s that supposed to do?”

“Its stuck tight,” Willie replied.  “When she fires up her car the exhaust will be blocked and she’ll blow out her muffler.  That’ll teach her to play smart mouth with me.”

“Shit, man.  That’s cold,” Enzo said.

“Yeah?  Well, then she should watch who she’s talking to.  Are you standing up for her?”

“Naw, none of my business,” Enzo said, thinking better of getting into it with the much larger Willie.  “She’ll probably guess who did it.”

“Yeah, but she can’t prove it,” Willie said with his incredibly annoying smirk.  “Though I hope that she does guess who did it.”

“Oh, crap.  It’s time for me to go,” Clyde said, looking at his watch.  “My dad’s back from deployment somewhere in the Pacific, and he expects to eat at three thirty every afternoon.  I gotta check the ball in and split.”

“Yeah, me too,”  Enzo echoed.  “Mom told me to be home before she went to work.  I’m cutting out of here.”

“I’ll go with you,” Brian said.  My brother’s going to sneak me into a movie tonight.

“You’re just a bunch of chicken-shits that don’t want to stay around for the fun,” Willie accused.  All three protested that he was wrong, but they still turned and left.  Clyde checked in the ball and said goodbye to Mary, and then the three friends started walking down Bernardo Street towards Brian’s house on Myrtle, three blocks away.

The stories that they had told Willie were, of course, pure fabrications.  They only wanted to put distance between themselves and the Park before Mary finished her shift and started her car to drive home.  As they walked toward Brian’s house, which was a frequent gathering place for the three boys, they discussed their problem.

“Man, we should have warned Mary,” Enzo said.

“Yeah, it’s not cool that he’s trying to screw up her car,” Brian agreed.

“But how could we say anything without Willie knowing it?” Clyde asked.  “I guess we’re the only ones he told, so he’d know that it was us who ratted him out.  I don’t want to deal with that either.”

“Ah, shit.  This is a mess,” Brian growled, and so the conversation went.

Once they arrived at Brian’s house the three boys went to the garage that had been converted into a sort of club house.  Inside were sofas and a small refrigerator, and walls covered with movie posters and other Hollywood memorabilia.  Brian’s brother, Frank, was in the club house when they got there.  He was looking for a place on the wall for the latest poster that he had brought home from his job at the River Bend Theater, where he worked part-time.

“Hey man,” Brian said as he entered.

“What’s up, Frank?” Enzo asked.

“Yeah, what up?” Clyde echoed.

“Hey guys.  How’s it hanging?”

“Ah, you know.  Same old same old,” Brian answered, and then after a moment he asked, “Hey Bro.  What happens when you stick a potato in somebody’s tail pipe?”

“What?”  Frank asked.  “You guys trying to screw with somebody?”

“No man,” Clyde replied.  “We just wanna know.  Somebody did it to somebody else, and he said that it will screw up their car.  Is that true?”

“No,” Frank said with a laugh.  “That ain’t true.”

“How do you know?” Enzo asked.

“Because I tried it,” Frank replied.

“Really?” Brian said in surprise.  “How come you never told me about it?”

“You never asked,”  Frank replied.  “Anyway, it’s no big deal.  Nothing happens.”

“No shit?  So it doesn’t blow out the muffler?”

“No,” Frank answered, laughing again.  “It just shoots the spud out a foot or two, and that’s all.  There’s a lot of compression in a car’s engine, and a spud won’t last very long in a tail pipe.”  The three boys looked at each other without speaking, but with relief washing visibly over their faces.  “Is there something that I should know about?” he asked.

“No, it’s nothing,” Brian answered.  “We’re all cool.  Hey, what’s that you’re hanging up?”

“It’s a poster for the film series that we just finished at the River Bend.  ‘B-Movie Classics of the 50’s and 60’s.’  They made some fine cheese back then.”

The boys gathered around Frank and marveled at the poster that he was in the process of hanging on the wall.  It was a life-size poster of Michael Landon as the Teenage Werewolf, complete with a hairy face, a mouthful of fangs, two large, hairy paws and a high school letterman’s jacket.

“Wow,” Clyde said and whistled.  “He looks like Chewbacca on steroids.”

“Yeah,” Frank said.  “Isn’t he cool?”  Then he left the boys alone in the garage, saying that he had to go into the house and study.  Brian opened the little refrigerator and extracted three soft drinks, which they opened and then sat down on the sofas.

“Man, we gotta do something about Willie,” Brian said.

“Do what?” Enzo asked.  “The guy can take on all three of us at the same time, or at least two of us.  What can we do?”

“Shit, I don’t think that there’s anything that we can do,” Clyde said.  “I may just quit going to the Park.”

“Oh hell no!” Brian replied.  “I think Mary’s starting to like me, but I haven’t asked her to go out with me yet, and there’s no other place where I can hang with her.  The Park’s the only place where we can get together.”

“Go on man.  What’s Mary to you?  Or more to the point, what are you to Mary?  She’s a college graduate, for crying out loud.”

Brian flipped his bottle cap in Clyde’s direction.  “Not Mary Fillippi, pea brain.  Mary Ellen Zinner.”

“Oh, really?  You think that she’s looking at you?” Enzo asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“I thought that she had better sense,” Clyde said.

“Yeah.  I thought she was looking a little higher up the food chain.”

“Screw both of you,” Brian said, and they all laughed.  Anyway, I’m not going to let that asshole run me away from the Park.”

“Then what’re we gonna do?” Enzo asked.

“Yeah.  If we can’t get rid of him, I wanna at least have a little pay backs,” Clyde said.

The three grew silent as they pondered the problem of Willie Starnes.  What do you do with a guy who is bigger than most of the rest of the kids, that wants to be one of the guys, but wants to be the alpha male at the same time?  Clyde was studying his fingernails while deep in thought, and Brian was looking absently out through the window.  Enzo was staring at the toothy Teenage Werewolf poster on the wall, occasionally baring his own teeth and curling his fingers into claws.  It was into this setting that Frank walked with a can of beer in his hand.

“Wow, what are you guys so serious about?” he asked.  “I’m not used to seeing this much brain power coming out of this group.”

“We’re trying to figure out a way to get some pay backs on Willie Starnes,” Brian said.  “There’s gotta be some way to get back at him.  I mean, he has to be afraid of something or someone.”

“He’s afraid of him,” Frank said, motioning towards the Teenage Werewolf with his can of beer.  “At least, he’s afraid of some of his friends.”

“What do you mean?” Clyde asked.

“He’s afraid of those movie monsters,” Frank replied.  “Him and his sister came to an evening showing last week.  It was The Creature From the Black Lagoon that was playing, I think, or maybe the House on Haunted Hill.  Anyway, it scared the pee out of him.”

“How do you know?” Brian asked.

I was working behind the snack counter that night and I saw him come out of the theater and go into the bathroom.  I saw it with my own two eyes.  He peed his pants.”

The room fell silent as a tomb, and then erupted into laughter at the thought of big, bad Willie peeing his pants at a movie, and with his sister as a witness.  “Oh man, I wish that I could have seen that,” Enzo said through his laughter.

“Maybe we should invite him to go see a movie with us,” Clyde suggested.  “He couldn’t turn us down without looking like he was chicken.”

“Oh, he’d find an excuse,” Brian said.  “He’s stupid, but he isn’t dumb.  I don’t think he’ll get into a movie house with us if there’s a chance he might pee his pants again.  Dang it!  There must be some way to introduce him to a good monster.”

The three boys, and now Frank too, fell to scheming on some way to take Willie to a monster movie.  They came up with multiple scenarios, none of which was practical.  Finally, however, Brian hit on a plan.  “Guys,” he said.  “If we can’t take Willie to the monster, maybe we should bring the monster to Willie.”

“Huh?” Enzo grunted.  “How do you propose that we do that?”

Brian pointed at the Werewolf poster and said, “That thing’s nearly life-size.  How about we stick that into Willie’s window tomorrow night?”

“Willie lives on the second floor,” Clyde observed.  “How do you propose that we stick that in his window?  You gonna ride on Godzilla’s back?”

“Well, that’s the stuff that we have to figure out,” Brian replied.  “We gotta be smarter than Willie, don’t we?”

“Hey!” Frank interjected.  “How does this sound?  You cut out the picture of the Werewolf from that poster and glue it onto some cardboard from the box that our folks’ new refrigerator came in.  Dad was saving it to put down over some place in the yard where he wants to kill the weeds, but I think that this is a worthy cause. Then we’ll tack Old Toothy there to the end of an eight foot two-by-two, and then join that to another two-by-two.  That’ll give you sixteen feet plus your own height, and you should be able to stick that thing right into Willie’s bedroom window.”

The boys broke out into cheers and laughter as they approved of Frank’s idea.  “OK,” Brian said.  “We have a plan.  Now we have to work out the particulars, like how’re we gonna know when Willie’s in his room?”

“That one might be easier than you think,” Enzo replied.  “Wednesday nights are family night at Willie’s house.  His old man insists that they eat at four in the afternoon and then play cards or dominoes or whatever after that.  He makes the the family stay together until six thirty.  Willie always splits to his room the second that he can get away.  By six thirty-five he will be there.”

“How in the heck do you know all of that?” Clyde asked.  “You been hanging out at his house?”

“No man.  His sister sits next to me in Mr. Hearns’ English class.  She tells me some stuff about Willie that I don’t share much because it could get my ass kicked.  She doesn’t like him much more than we do.  She told me about the family night stuff.  She doesn’t like it very much herself.”

“Did she tell you about him pissing himself at the movies?”

“No, she didn’t.  I guess that was one that even she wanted to stay away from.”

“Hot damn!” Brian shouted out.  “It’s payback time!”

“Whoa,” Clyde said.  “How are we going to join two two-by-twos together end to end?   How are we going to get them to Willie’s apartment?  Most important; how are we going to get away from there without getting our asses kicked or the police called on us?”

“I can help you with that,” Frank offered.  “It shouldn’t be too hard to build a sleeve to act as a connector for the two two-by-twos.  You guys get to work on cutting out the Werewolf and pasting him onto the cardboard.  We can think about the other stuff while we get this done.”

By seven o’clock that evening they had a fairly rigid nearly life-size Teenage Werewolf attached to one end of an eight foot long two-by-two piece of lumber.  On the other end of the wood stick was a pair of one eighth inch thick metal straps that were fastened to the wood by two bolts that ran through holes in the metal and wood that had been drilled by Frank.

The second two-by-two also had holes drilled into it that corresponded to holes in the lower end of the metal straps.  By sliding the second two-by-two between the straps, inserting two more bolts and then tightening them down with a couple of lock washers and nuts, the assembly became a fairly secure sixteen foot pole with a Teenage Werewolf on the top of it.

“So how’re we going to get these to Willie’s house?” Enzo asked.  “We’d look a little conspicuous walking down the street with it.”

“Let me talk to Larry Boortz,” Frank said.  He’s got a truck.  Maybe he’ll let me borrow it tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah man,” Brian said.  “Tomorrow’s the day!  Can you call him now?”

“Sure.  I’ll go inside and see if I can get ahold of him.”

Frank went into the house to find his phone, leaving the three boys literally vibrating with excitement.  “This is what I’ve been dreaming about,” Brian said.  “I’ve wanted to get back at that jerk ever since he hit me in the balls with that sock.”

“Yeah man,” Clyde agreed.  “I wish that I could see him when he pisses himself again.”

“Piss hell!” Enzo replied with a laugh.  “I’ll bet he puts a big, fat, stinking brown log in his underwear!”

They all began to laugh so hard that they had to sit down, and they were still laughing when Frank returned with a big grin on his face.  “The truck’s ours after four o’clock, boys.  We’re in business and we’re gonna do this thing.”

The next day, a day early in November, the boys anxiously waited for Frank to return with his friend’s truck.  By five o’clock they had loaded the wood and poster and hardware into the bed of the truck.  The sun went down at five fifty three that day, so they waited until six.  Then, Frank, Brian and Enzo climbed into the cab of the truck while Clyde laid down in the bed holding tight to the two-by-twos, the ends of which protruded over the tailgate of the truck’s short bed.

Frank drove carefully, trying to draw no attention to the truck and its occupants.  They parked in the middle of the block on Mason Street, equally distant from the street lamps at either end of the block.  Willie’s apartment was reached by going south on Mason to Thirty Fourth Street, then turning right and going to the next corner.

There was a light on that corner, but it was across the street diagonally from Willie’s apartment.  A hedge of oleander bushes grew in a line about three feet from the apartment and parallel to the building, which largely shielded the boys from sight.  A further feature that weighed in their favor was the row of pepper trees that grew in the parking strip along the street.  The light from the street lamp would be shielded at the height of Willie’s window by those trees, leaving Willie without enough light to see anything other than a big, snarling werewolf outside his window.

At Six twenty five they cinched down the nuts on the metal sleeve, creating the sixteen foot-long pole, and crept down the sidewalk with it.  Dusk was settling in with a deep gloom, and nobody saw them as they rounded the corner of Mason and Thirty Fourth.  They quickly ducked behind the oleanders and stepped silently towards the spot below Willie’s window.  Frank had a watch and he followed the second hand.   Slowly it slowly piled up the minutes until it finally read six-thirty.  He held up his hand, signaling for them to get ready.  Six thirty one.  Six thirty two – – -.

At six thirty five he dropped his hand and Brian raised the poster up until it rested motionlessly, flush in the middle of Willie’s bedroom window.  At first there was not a sound.  Six thirty six.  Six thirty seven.  Then a shriek was heard which tore through the screen of the open window and cut into the darkening night.  Brian waved the poster up and down, then side to side, and shriek followed fresh shriek.  Enzo and Clyde were softly stamping their feet, trying to suppress the urge to laugh out loud.  Frank, the cooler of the four, signaled for Brian to pull down the Werewolf and retreat to the truck.

They quickly followed Frank’s lead and ran quietly back to where the truck was parked.  Frank and Clyde jumped into the cab of the truck while Enzo and Brian stuck the pole Werewolf-first into the bed and then climbed in after it.  Frank drove two blocks forward, where they stopped and disassembled their pole.  After that they drove back to Frank and Brian’s house.

The next Saturday the three boys were once again hanging out at the Park, this time outside of the office.  Mary Fillippi was huddled with several of the neighborhood girls talking about nothing that a boy would want to hear.  Once again, Willie was seen plodding across the playground towards where they sat.  The boys carried on their conversation, pretending that they had not seen him.  Finally, as he came close to where they sat, they acknowledged his presence.

“Hey Willie,” Enzo said.  “How’s it hanging?”

“Yeah,” Clyde chimed in.  “What up, man?”

“Hey”, he replied.  “One of you guys want to check out a football and go chuck it in the field?”

“Not today,” Brian said.  “Mary’s busy with Diane and Linda and Mary Ellen and some other girls, and I don’t feel like breaking in on that.”

“Besides,” Enzo added.  “We’re going to the movies.  You wanna go with us?”  Clyde and Brian looked at Enzo as if he had lost his mind.  They had made no such plans that day.  This was the first that they had heard anything at all about going to the movies, and especially with Willie.

“Yeah,” Willie replied.  “Maybe that’d be all right.  Somebody would have to spot me a little change to get in.”

“Yeah, I’ll spring for you,” Enzo replied.  Now the other two boys looked at Enzo with absolute horror on their faces.

“What movie are we going to?” Willie asked.

“The one at the River Bend,” Enzo answered.  He looked at his two stupefied friends and gave a barely-perceptible wink, and then asked them, “What’s playing today?  I think it’s that old one, you know; Fiend Without a Face,” isn’t it?  You know, the one about invisible radioactive brains with the spines hanging out that fly around and land on the back of your neck and suck your brains out?”

Brian realized where Enzo was going with this and stepped up to play his part in the subterfuge.  “No, I think that one was last week.  I think this week it’s The Fly; that one where the guy whips a cloth away from his head and he’s got a big, black, fuzzy fly-head with little mouthparts quivering.”

“Oh yeah,” Enzo responded.  I love the part where David Heddison’s head is on the fly that’s caught in the spider web and the spider is about to eat him.  Vincent Price picks up a big rock and crushes them both.”  He then looked at Willie’s ashen face and said “Oh, are we spoiling this by giving it away?  Well, there’s a second feature that we won’t talk about.”

By now Clyde had caught on and wanted his turn.  “No, no, no.  You’re both wrong.  This week it’s The Tingler.  You know, the one where the big centipede-looking thing crushes your back if you don’t scream when you’re scared and it gets taken out of that mute girl’s bloody back and kills all sorts of people.  I love that movie.”

“Oh yeah!” Brian and Enzo said in unison.  “Let’s see if any of the girls want to come too.  Who knows; they might need a boy to hold their hands.  Are you in, Willie?”

Willie’s face had turned a sickly shade of pale, somewhere between nausea green and deathly white.  He waved both hands in front of himself, signaling a negative reply.  “No man.  I just remembered some stuff that my dad wants me to do.  You guys go ahead on.”

“Too bad,” Brian said and rose up from the bench where he was seated.  “I’ll go ask Mary Ellen and the girls right now if they want to go.”  As he walked slowly towards the office where the girls were gathered, Willie waved to Clyde and Enzo and turned to leave the Park.  After he had fallen out of sight the three boys stood together and looked at one another in silence.  Finally Brian broke into a big smile and said “Bam!”

The laughed so hard that it was almost their turn to pee their pants.  The noise of their laughter reached into the office where the girls were, and they emerged to see what was so funny.  The boys knew that they would have to guard the secret of their sweet revenge until either Willie moved away from the area or one of them grew to be big enough to back him down.

“It’s nothing,” Brian said.  “Inside joke.  You’d have had to be there.”  Then he looked at Mary Ellen with something approaching boldness and said “You want to go to a movie today?”

“Sure.  Maybe,” she answered.  “What’s playing?”

Brian looked over at Clyde and Enzo and asked “You guys know what’s playing?”

“Haven’t a clue,” Enzo replied and looked at Clyde who just shrugged his shoulders.

“We could call it a blind date,” Brian said.  “A really blind one.”

“That sounds like fun,” Mary Ellen replied.  “I’ll call my parents from the office and ask.”

 

Just Another Morning In Paradise

This morning I sat down in my chair and wrote out all of the things that I intended to get done today. Drive to Sellwood and pick up supplements from my naturopath, return to Vancouver for a massage, get gas, go shopping, and maybe watch some college football. It was going to take some timing, but it could easily be done.

The naturopath’s office opened at nine in the morning, so at eight thirty I jumped into the car and began the thirty minute trip to Sellwood where His office is located. As I crossed the I-205 bridge I felt my pocket, as is my habit, to make sure that I had remembered to bring my phone. I patted up my thigh and then down and, finally, and with considerable consternation, accepted that I had forgotten to bring my phone. “No sweat,” I told myself. “I’ve survived without a phone for most of my life. I guess I’ll do OK for the next hour or two.” So I drove on, exiting the 205 onto Powell Boulevard, and then began to meander through Southeast Portland towards Sellwood.

About half-way down Powell a warning tone came on in the cab of my car and a tire symbol appeared on the dash. I wasn’t perturbed because the darned thing had been going off periodically for the last four months, and the service guys at the local Ford dealership could not find anything wrong with the tires or with the electronics. I had come to accept that my onboard computer was malfunctioning at best, or that it was possessed by a malevolent spirit that was out to make my life miserable. Either scenario was equally believable, although my money would most likely be put on the latter possibility.

Shortly after the alarm went on I stopped for a red light, and when I accelerated again I became aware of an odd flopping noise. This is not entirely unheard of in my Ford Escape. Many times when I’ve been on the highway and had the rear windows down, my ears have been assaulted by the most unpleasant of flopping sounds, so I thought that this might be the same phenomenon.

The windows were rolled up however because it was about fifty three degrees outside and I was wearing only a tee shirt. Also, I was not on the highway. No, the sound came from somewhere else. “Maybe that car next to me,” I thought, so I slowed down and let that car get well in front of me. The flopping sound continued. It wasn’t that car.

At that point I could no longer dodge the fact that I had a tire in trouble. I turned right onto a side street and parked by the curb. Upon getting out of my car I looked at the two driver’s side tires and saw that they were fine. When I walked behind the car and looked at the rear passenger-side tire however, I received the verdict: It was as flat as a board.

“Oh great,” I thought. “Flat tire. Deep into Portland. No phone. What the heck am I to do next?”

At this point some sort of acute stress response reaction set in. This is more commonly known as the “flight or fight syndrome.” I was in a situation here: flat tire, no phone, sketchy neighborhood, wife on a plane to Las Vegas. What do I do next?”

Plan A was to change the tire, but that was not really a valid option. I hate working on cars. When I was young it was expected that all boys could work on cars; that they longed to work on cars. I tried to develop a taste for such activity, but the effort never paid off. Finally, in my later twenties, it became crystal clear that I hated working on cars, and I refused to do it ever again.

Because of this it never occurred to me that I should try to change the flat myself. I might as well try to turn lead into gold. Somewhere in that car was probably a jack, and quite possibly there was also a spare tire. I had no impulse – and I mean zero – to look for either. Cars are dirty, and I don’t like car dirt. Garden dirt is fine. Dirt with tomatoes growing out of it is just peachy. Road dirt? Dirt with old grease in it? Dirt that demands that you scrape your knuckles as a price of admission to play in it? No. Hell no! No damned way. I don’t do that.

Plan B was to return to Vancouver where my phone was and call Triple A. As I said earlier, I was in reaction mode, and going back to where I came from was the first real plan – and it was a visceral plan at that – that came to my mind. Returning to my house in Vancouver would provide me a chance to reset the situation. At that moment I could see a bus approaching that was going in the direction that I wished to go, so I jumped.

I ran across the street and made it to the bus stop in time to board the bus, thanking my lucky stars that I was on my way towards my destination with no delay. I was also thankful that the bus was warm since, as I said, I had left my house wearing only jeans and a tee shirt. No sweat, eh? I’ll be inside all the time!

The bus took me a mile up the road to where I could walk a short distance to the light rail stop, or Max as it’s called in Portland. I walked through a homeless camp and gained the Max platform, only to find that the next train was twenty six minutes away. Weekend schedule. I had no phone, no book, and no pen and paper, and no sweatshirt or jacket, so I chose to walk in long loops around the platform to kill time and try to keep warm.

I made one loop and knocked three minutes off of my wait time. As I began the second loop I remembered that this was a weekend. The train would still run to the Gateway Station, and from there I would board a train that would still run to the Park Rose Station. What I did not know however was if the express bus ran from Park Rose to Vancouver on weekends as it did on weekdays. I would be rolling the dice. It was cold and I was walking on the train platform among trash that was blowing in from the homeless camp, and I did not wish to roll any dice.

No! I would have to stay on the train and pass through Gateway to Lloyd Center, and then walk to the Yellow Line that would take me up to Delta Park. From there I could take the Number Four bus to Vancouver, then the Number 37 to within five blocks of my house.

I made another loop around the platform. Sixteen minutes to go. I began a third loop and in my mind I watched myself arrive at my house. I have a set of keys in my pocket and I will enter through the front door. But – – – wait! Our front door is secured by a multiplicity of locks which includes a manually-thrown dead bolt, and I do not remember whether that bolt has been retracted or remains in place. If it is still in place, all of the keys in the world will do me no good, so I ask myself, “Do you feel lucky?”

Actually I do not feel particularly lucky on this day. There has not been one thing that had happened to me yet that could possibly contribute to any sort of feeling lucky. I stopped and felt completely flummoxed while pondering my options, while a catsup-smudged McDonald’s wrapper blew against my ankle. In a moment my next move became clear: I had to return to my car and retrieve the garage door opener (which I should have removed from the car in the first place).

With a sigh I retraced my steps down from the Max platform, back through the homeless camp, and back to Powell Boulevard. There, I caught a bus that returned me to where I started. I opened my car and retrieved the garage door opener, then locked the vehicle and walked to the nearest bus stop, going now in the opposite direction. The buses were running more frequently than was the Max and I decided to take a bus to where I could more easily catch the Yellow Line towards Vancouver. Also, getting on a bus would get me out of the cold, and I wanted very much to do just that.

While standing at the bus stop and walking in circles, trying to kill time until the bus arrived and I could warm up again, my brain once again began to engage in something reminiscent of normal function. I had a Triple A card in my wallet, and if I had my phone I would have already called them for roadside assistance. But I didn’t have my phone. But somebody must have a phone!

I looked around me and saw nobody except one quintessentially odd Portland couple crossing Powell a half a block east of where I stood, and one tuxedo-colored tom cat in an empty yard behind me. I knew that my odds with the cat were weak, and the couple, both scantily clad with neon hair, piercings in places that gave me a mild case of anal flutter, and the unmistakable look of being stoned out of their gourds, inclined me to suspect that my odds for luck with them would be only slightly greater than were those with the cat.

I looked to the west and saw only a closed neighborhood bar. Since it was only a little past nine in the morning I knew that there would be nobody there. To the east was a row of businesses, and I started walking in that direction to see if I might find one open and the proprietors willing to let my scraggly self come in and use their phone.

A dental office, an accountant, an insurance agent, a wood panel business; all were closed. It was a weekend, or have I already said that? I saw some more businesses across the street, each with a simple neon sign that said ‘Open.’ I thought that I might try my luck there but just a few yards in front of me on my side of the street I saw a barber’s pole and it was moving. I walked up to the building and sure enough, the business was open. I opened the door and walked inside. There, an Asian woman was cutting an Asian customer’s hair. Another Asian customer was waiting for her turn.

The barber spoke very little English. She tried to explain something, but I had no clue what she was saying. I began to relate my own sad story but it quickly became apparent that she did not understand me any better than I understood her. Fortunately the customer waiting for her turn in the barber’s chair understood my dilemma. She offered me the use of her phone and I put in my call for roadside assistance.

Thirty minutes later two gentlemen showed up to remove the flat tire which had been destroyed by a jagged piece of metal, and replace it with the pathetic little rubber donut that functioned as my spare tire. I then limped home, retrieved my phone, and drove to the tire place where I replaced all four of my old tires with nice, new ones with a fifty thousand mile warrantee.

Other than that, it was a fairly uneventful morning.

Achieving The Dream

I have wanted to be a writer for almost as many years as I can remember. Now, at long last, I believe that I can lay claim to having succeeded in that long-held dream. Amazon promises me that on Tuesday of next week, three days from now (but who’s counting?), a book will arrive in the mail; a book titled The Garden. The author is Glenn L. Durden. Me. This event will signify a very important milestone along my life’s journey, and I am going to share a little of that with you now.

It wasn’t easy. Oh, the writing? Not at all. That part was easy enough. I would rise early and go to Thatcher’s Coffee and write until I had finished two sixteen ounce cups of coffee. If the story was really flowing I might write until the buzz began to wear off. The good coffee, the white noise in the moderately-sized room, and the big, comfortable chairs made for a perfect place to allow the creative juices to flow. Sometimes I would write a chapter in a day, but usually I would produce much less. I never really knew where my story was going, so many times I would come to a dead end. Then I would have to back up and start again to see if I would arrive at the place that I wanted to but didn’t know it.

Finally I put the last period after the last word. “There. It is finished!” I said to myself.  I saved all of my chapters on the hard drive and then printed the entire book because I don’t trust hard drives not to fail, and then decided that my work was good enough to try my luck with a publisher. That is when the real work started.

I am not very capable with technology, and nobody wants to see a printed manuscript or any part of a printed manuscript any more. They probably haven’t wanted to see them for many years. Instead, chapters or summaries of chapters or other portions or distillations of my work were required to be formatted and filed and GoogleDoc’ed or DropBox’ed or sent in other manners of digital packaging that looked for all the world to me like the instructions were written in Klingon.

Nevertheless I gave it my best shot. After a few tries I became proficient enough to get samples of my work to a number of publishers. Some were kind enough to give me written rejections. I considered that progress. Eventually I learned that one could advance one’s publishing career all the more quickly by securing the services of an agent. I next thing that I learned however was that the services of agents were not materially easier to secure that were publishers. I found the whole business to so frustrating that I began to lose heart and considered giving up on the whole thing. Then I mentioned my dilemma to a friend named Bob.

Bob lives far away from me now but we stay in contact. He makes a decent living writing guides for expatriates living overseas, and he publishes his own work through Amazon. “Give it a try” he suggested. “It’s easier than you think. They’ll tell you what to do every step of the way.” That sounded very promising, so I decided to take a chance.

 

The first thing that I discovered in the process is that Bob is a lot better with a computer than I am. “Easy” to him is like “Excruciating” to me. First I had to download my novel into a template that fits Kindle and then the paperback version, and they are quite different. Then, relying almost entirely on my wife’s vastly superior computer capabilities, we cut and trimmed and configured until the template actually resembled the real life product.

The next thing that I learned is that I needed a cover. Most books have them. I looked around my home town and learned that a book cover will cost you $500-1,000, and usually closer to the higher end. Well, I don’t have anything like that figure to invest in a hobby that is hardly likely to generate anything close to that in royalties so here I was, stuck again.

One day, while getting a haircut and whining about my problem to my barber (do barbers listen to more people whining about their problems than do bartenders?), I had the answer to my problem dropped into my lap. “Why don’t you go to the local community college and see if one of the graphic arts students can make one up for you?” she suggested.

This was pure genius. I contacted the college and was eventually put in touch with a student who needed a graduation project. We met and I shared some pictures that I had already taken and my general vision for the cover. She soon produced a cover that I believe is the best book cover that I’ve ever seen, although I might be biased about that.

So finally all of the pieces have come together and a paperback containing my words and my name is on its way to my house. It will be placed in a prominent location and every time that I look at it I will be reminded that a dream which existed for half a century has been fulfilled. I can’t linger over my accomplishment for long however. My second book is already under construction.