The Garden, Epilogue

Charlie stood in front of the church, waiting for his bride to walk down the aisle toward him.  Spread out before him in the sanctuary of House of Grace Church in downtown Vancouver was a small crowd of well-wishers who came to witness the union of Charlie and Carolyn Hamer.  Charlie looked out over the crowd and marveled at the number of people who he now called friends, and with whom he shared life on a level of intimacy that he could never have imagined for the first forty five years of his life.

He could see Maureen and Carl seated to his right, in the groom’s half of the room.  Maureen was radiant, and now wore Carl’s engagement ring.  Jack was preparing himself to play the bride’s procession at the piano that sat on the right hand side of the stage.  He smiled and nodded at his father, who beamed back at him.

LuAnn, Jason and Tank were in the back row.  Jason still wasn’t coming any closer to a church service than that, so the others sat with him.  Rachael and her fiancé, Manny Baca and his small herd, Lester and Frank from the construction crew and others were there.  Billy and Dom and Father Krempke were seated in the front row.

And then there was Carolyn.  She wore a gown of soft yellow with a white veil, and to Charlie it looked like the sun had come out in the back of the church.  She looked at Charlie as Jack began to play, and beamed toward him pure love and joy.  He could hardly believe that he deserved this, and beamed the same back to her.

Carolyn walked slowly forward, mounted the steps and took her place next to him.  They faced Pastor Saunders, who began the ceremony.  Charlie held her hands, repeated his vows and accepted hers.  Then, as the pastor asked for the ring with which Charlie would seal his end of the bargain, he heard a fart that had to register at least eight on the Richter Scale.  Pastor Saunders looked shocked, but Charlie and Carolyn had to suppress a laugh.  He leaned toward Carolyn’s ear and whispered “looks like Walt finally made it.”

The Garden, Chapter XXIV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, that’s not too – – -.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Charlie.  Charlie Hamer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden Chapter XXIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t follow you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s he playing today?”

“It’s called a nocturne.”

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

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

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

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

“Opus 9” Charlie added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you like?   Charlie asked of Maureen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A boyfriend?”

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

“Do I what?”

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

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

“Maria?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” he asked.  “What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Carolyn” Charlie answered.

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

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

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

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

“Ummm, interesting.  Six o’clock?”

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

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

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

“I can hardly wait.”

“Me too.”

An Odd Day At The Beach

It was a gray day in San Diego, which means that it was somewhere between January and June.  The year was 1970 and I had been home from the Army for about seven months, which was long enough for my hair to increase from sub-military length (they threatened to not let me leave Vietnam unless my hair was short enough.  I made certain that it was) to somewhere around my collar.  My beard, which I had dreamed of for years, was a sparse and raggedy affair hanging miserably off of my chin, but by God, at last I had one.

Benson “Benny” Beck and I were posted up at the south end of the La Jolla Shores beach, by the end of the street which ran in front of the 7-11 store.  We had gathered driftwood from all along the beach and had a nice little fire going in a hole that we had dug in the sand where a concrete pad made a ninety degree angle from a wall.  The 7-11 was close enough to provide sunflower seeds and donuts and six packs of Budweiser, and we were doing our part to make sure that their business was successful.

Benny and I hung around together a lot during that first year back from the War.  He had arrived home about two weeks before I did, and I went to his parent’s house on my first evening back in San Diego.  We did nearly everything together that first year, with everything consisting mostly of drinking beer, smoking weed, eating pizza from Nicolosi’s, Pernicano’s, and Sorrento’s, all of which were located on El Cajon Boulevard.  Occasionally we would diversify and eat hot dogs from Der Weinerschnitzel on College Avenue (or ‘Der Tumorschnitzel,’ as we called it) or burritos from some nasty little joint on El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and 54th.  Strangely, Benny never gained a pound.  I, on the other hand, ballooned to over 200 pounds from my svelte post-Army 132.

We went to the mountains.  We went to the desert.  We went to the bar owned by Dave “Monk” Callabretta’s dad, and on that day we went to the beach in La Jolla.

There was no thought in either of our heads about going into the water.  I guess one could say that there was rarely any thought in either of our heads one way or the other, but that’s a different story.  Anyway, in lieu of bathing in the frigid waters off of the Shores – yes, in the winter they are just plain frigid – we sat back, opened packages of snacks and bottles of beer, and maintained the warm fire while we talked about – – – everything.  And nothing in particular.  And it was while I was pontificating about nothing important that Benny pointed out to sea and said “What is that?”

I looked to where he was pointing and saw nothing at first.  “Ain’t nothing there” I said.  “You’re tripping.”

“What’s the matter?  Ain’t you got eyes?” he asked.  “Look over there.”

Benny pointed to an object about one hundred meters off of the beach.  I squinted at the waves and at last perceived a dark object just barely protruding above the water  “Looks like a piece of wood” I said.  “Or a seal.”

The object was moving toward us and soon was joined by another similar object, and then another.  We watched, speculating on the nature of what we were seeing, until the objects came close enough for us to see that they were the heads of divers in wet suits.

As they approached the shore they rose up out of the water and we could see that they were carrying one of their number, or at least helping him to struggle out of the water.  In no time the divers spotted us and, more important, our fire, and made a beeline to where we were seated.

“What’s wrong?” Benny called out to them as they approached.  “Can we help?”

“Our friend here got cold” one of them replied.  “His suit failed and he’s got some hypothermia going on.  Can we sit by your fire for a while?”

“Sure” I said.  “Help yourself.  We’ll go dig up some more wood for you.”

The divers sat their friend in the sand in front of the fire, propped up against the concrete pad.  Benny and I didn’t take long to find more wood and we built the fire up a little more to help the cold diver recover.  We chatted with those guys for a while until the diver in distress claimed that he was warming up.  One of his friends volunteered to stay with him while the others resumed their dive and returned to wherever their cars were parked.  They would then return to pick them up.

Benny and I shared our beer with them and kept the fire going until a car appeared at the end of the street that runs by the 7-11 store, right where we were waiting.  They climbed into that car and disappeared.

After a few more beers we walked along the beach back to the La Jolla Shores parking area, which was almost empty on that gray, murky day.  Probably, we were going to grab some pizza, or a hot dog.  Who the divers were and where they went to I haven’t a clue.

The Garden, Chapter XXII

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

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

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

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

“Auntie Lu?” Charlie interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was there two years.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean this Sunday, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mostly it is” Charlie replied.

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

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

“OK” Rachael said.  “Shoot.”

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

“Yes, you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Carolyn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I already am” Rachael replied.

 

The Long Climb

I climbed Dog Mountain today.  If I wasn’t so tired I would walk into the back room where my phone is on the charger and look up just how much of an elevation gain Dog Mountain is.  It is less than three thousand feet but more than two thousand, eight hundred.  If you are curious enough to know just how much it is you’ll have to Google it.  I’m just too tired right now to do it for you.

Suffice it to say, it is the most consistently vertical limb that I have ever made!  I have made similar climbs back in the early 1970’s.  The first was on a trail from Devil’s Postpile campground to Minaret Lake.  That lake rests at nine thousand and eight hundred feet above sea level.  I do not know how much elevation is gained from campground to lake and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.  At nine thousand feet such matters are of small importance.  The fact that you are that high ensures that any incline will beat the stuffing out of you, and the last quarter mile was so steep that I emerged into that high valley so exhausted that I sat down on a large rock in the sun and tried my best not to puke while my friend Warren went on to find a place for us to camp.

Warren and I also picked a trail that led from the floor of the Yosemite Valley up the north wall to the rim.  That monster was a succession of switchbacks that seemed as if they would never end.  In fact, I have no idea if they end or do not.  At some point we said “To hell with it” and returned to the Valley floor.  To our credit, we proceeded up to the east end of the Valley and climbed to an almost paradisiacal camping spot far away from the usual run of Yosemite visitors.

But neither of those climbs, both made when I was twenty one and twenty two years of age, come close to the effort that I put out today just thirty one days shy of my sixty ninth birthday, and three years after having bypass heart surgery.  From the trailhead, only a few feet above the high water mark of the Columbia Rover, I and five friends from my church joined a horde of others in ascending this mid-sized mountain in the Columbia River Gorge.  I made it to the top with my quadriceps, gastrocnemious and soleus muscles screaming, my hamstring and achilles tendons in revolt, and my lungs pulling in air like a bank pulling in home loans in 2008.  But I made it to the top.

This success was the result of a very good surgeon who split my chest open like a spatchcocked chicken and bypassed the plugged coronary arteries which threatened to grease my way to a reunion with Mom and Dad, who passed some years ago, and a bunch of beloved cats.  The ministrations of a number of nurses and phlebotomists and other technical geniuses at that hospital, and an absolutely exceptional naturopath, plus a new devotion to eating mostly meat, vegetables, fruit and good fats, have resulted in my ability to grind up a trail such as I did today.

Also important in that climb, or the ability to make that climb, is the grace of God.  There’s no way that I can account for my ability to make that climb or, what was worse, the descent, without accepting that God has gifted me with the health to do so.  After two years in Vietnam dodging Viet Cong bullets and wading through pools of agent orange, and nearly ten years of civilian life after the military in which my lifestyle can only be described as near-suicidal, and finally after the heart attack and surgery, I climbed up that mountain like a normal guy.  OK, maybe more like an old Hudson in granny gear, but I still got up it, all right?

One could attribute my success to good DNA, expert medical attention, and a careful observation of nutritional and dietary guidelines, and I’m certain that those things played a large part in this day’s success  But I am more inclined to believe that someone who I and a lot of other people call ‘God’ has chosen to give me more time on earth with the ability to get out and live my life in arduous engagements.

This is not to say that those who are not physically able to do what I did today are living lesser lives than mine, or are less loved by the same God who created and cares for them as He does for me.  I am only saying that God has chosen for me to still be able to engage in physical activity and that is all.  I don’t know why I have been given that ability and the next person has not.  I just know, or at the very least believe, that in my case a continuance of the ability to climb grades like Minaret Lake and the north side of Yosemite and Dog Mountain has been granted to me near the end of my seventh decade of life, and I want to publicly thank God and give Him the glory for that gift.

The Garden, Chapter XXI

No dreams of Bertie haunted Charlie’s dreams that night, but echoes of the whiskey that he had consumed the evening before played the devil with his head the next morning.  He lay on the cot face-up, fully dressed still and with the blanket pulled up snugly around his neck.  The chill of the night air had not penetrated his covers enough to disturb his sleep but now, as he lay there waking up, he began to feel the cold.  His mouth felt like cotton balls.  “Must have been snoring and breathing through my mouth” he thought as he rolled onto his side and began to try to work up some saliva with his tongue.

He lay there a few more minutes until he realized that he would not be going back to sleep, and it would be a few more hours before it began to get warm again.  The sun had not yet appeared on the horizon but the light had advanced well past the faint glow of the first evidence of dawn.  “I’ll get a fire going and maybe get some coffee started” he thought, and pushed himself erect.

The fire took only a few minutes to get going and soon a boiling pan of water rested on the iron grate over the blaze.  Charlie had brought a jar of instant coffee which he intended to open momentarily.  Walt, however, emerged bleary eyed from the tent and quickly changed his plan.    “Damn” he said.  “I could hold my liquor a lot better when I was a lot younger.  My mouth’s dryer than a popcorn fart.  Ah, well done, Junior.  You got the water boiling, now Let Papa take over from here.”

Walt pulled a sack from the pantry which contained ground coffee.  He tilted the sack and began to empty some of the contents right into the boiling water.  “Hobo coffee” he explained.  “This is how my Grandpa used to make this stuff.  He lived on a farm a county or two away from Pierre, South Dakota.  Gramps didn’t cotton to change much.  “Worked fine for me when Teddy Roosevelt was president, so I guess it’ll work for me now that that bastard Johnson’s running the circus” I remember him saying.”

Billy emerged from the tent at this time, moving stiffly toward the fire.  It was obvious that the exertions he had made the day before had caused his damaged leg to tighten up.  Sleeping in a bag on a thin foam mat that had been rolled out onto the handpicked campground floor hadn’t helped it any either.  Walt asked Charlie for the bottle containing the last of the whiskey.  “Sorry Walt” Charlie told him.  “That old soldier has passed away.”  He walked to his pack and pulled out a fresh half pint of the same stock.  “We’ll have to open up his little brother.”

“You’re a gentleman and a scholar” Walt told him.   He opened the bottle and said “Hair of the dog” as he took a nip and then thrust the bottle towards Billy.  The young man accepted the bottle and took a nip of his own and then passed it to Charlie.  He accepted the bottle but declined to swallow any.

“It’ll take the edge off” Walt said.

“Naw, I’ll pass for now” Charlie replied.  “Probably put a drop into my coffee.”

In short order the coffee was boiling and Walt removed the pan from the stove.  “It’ll cool in a minute and the grounds will settle.  Most of them anyway.  You boys help yourselves.  I’ve gotta take a dump.  Leave me a little of the coffee, and you can leave me another swallow of that hooch, too.”

Walt walked away toward the bathroom and shower facilities on the far side of the campground.  Charlie waited only a minute or two before he carefully poured a tin cup full of coffee.  Billy extended a stained old mug toward him and Charlie filled that too.

“We’ll leave the dregs for Walt” Billy said.

“He’ll love that” Charlie replied.

“Oh, he won’t mind” Billy said wit a grin.  “You just save him a swallow of that fine, gentleman’s whiskey and all’ll be forgiven.  Say, we could get some breakfast going too.  You up for pulling a little K.P.?”

Charlie took a sip of the coffee, which turned out to be no worse than he got at Leroy’s, and considerably better than he had made for himself at the apartment.  “Dang, this is not bad!  How does he know all of that stuff?  Yeah, let’s cook some grits.”

With Billy taking lead, there was bacon and potatoes frying in two last iron skillets when Walt returned, looking a little better than he had when he left.  Walt eyed the dregs in the coffee pan and said “Thanks a pant load, guys.”

“It’s good for you.  It’s good training” Billy said.

“I should train my boot up your ass” Walt grumped.

Charlie handed the bottle Walt and said “Here.  Train some of this into your cup.”

“At least there’s one shitbird in this outfit that respects his elders” Walt said as he accepted the bottle.  “So what’s on the menu for breakfast?”

The men finally sat down at the thick wood and stone camp table and ate a breakfast that surpassed their previous one in Walla Walla, in quality if not quantity.  Billy put a kettle of water over the fire after Walt made another pan of coffee, and the water heated while they ate.  After finishing their meal and washing up with the hot water they stowed their supplies and began to make a plan.

“How’s the leg holding up?” Charlie asked Billy.

“It’s loosening up OK” Billy replied.  “Felt like I’d trashed it all over again first thing this morning, but it’s feeling pretty good now.”

“You think you can go as far as you did yesterday?”

“Yeah, no sweat.  Farther probably, if you bring that sweet chair.  I was thinking it would be nice to get up on a ridge if we can, where we can get a look at more territory.  Then we can use these.”  Billy reached into his pack and pulled out a set of binoculars.

“Zeiss!  Jeez, Billy.  You steal those from the Army?  I know you didn’t get them on what Uncle Sam was paying you!” Walt declared.

“No, I didn’t steal nothing” Billy protested.  “I prefer to call it ‘midnight requisition.’  Bedsides, they were just laying around, so I decided that the Army didn’t want them anymore.  Man, I thought that I would never get a chance to use these!”

“Well, all right.”  Walt exclaimed.  “Let’s saddle up and get this row on the shoad.”

They separated to get their packs in order.  Charlie took water, high energy snacks and assorted other possible trail necessities.  Walt and Billy did similarly, only they also slipped handguns into holsters that were hidden by their long camouflage shirts.

“What are you guys carrying?” Charlie asked.  “We’re not going out there to shoot anything, you know.”

“I’ve got a .44 Mag.  The most powerful handgun made” Walt said in a gravelly voice, imitating Clint Eastwood in the movie Dirty Harry.  “No, I don’t expect to shoot anything, but you never know when you might surprise a momma bear and her cubs, or a full-grown bear that thinks you look good for dinner.  This cannon might not stop a big one, but it’ll damn sure make him pay for his dinner.”

“I feel like a runt with only this .357 Mag”  Billy added.  “But it’ll give Yogi Bear even more to think about.  Although I think that he’d choke on your unsavory ass.”  He chucked a pine cone at Walt, who batted it out of the air with the back of his hand and reached, as if going for his sidearm.  Billy did likewise and Charlie said “Oh, shit.  I’m in the woods with John Wayne and Marshall Dillon.  God help me!”

“Give your soul to god” Walt said.  “‘Cause your ass belongs to me” and he squared off as if preparing for a duel.

“OK” Charlie said.  “You two are scaring me now.  Let’s get moving; I’ll feel safer out there with the bears.”

All three laughed and began to hike down the same road that they had travelled on the day before.  The sun soon began to rise in the sky, warming the air and beating down on their heads.  The hangover that Charlie thought he might have dodged began to rise with the heat and exertion, and soon he was wishing that he had some aspirin, another swallow of the whiskey, or a head transplant.  “It’ll pass” he muttered to himself more loudly than he thought he had.

“What’s that?” Walt asked.

“Ah, just mu head.  It feels like I’ve got Mel Gibson running away from Tina Turner in it.”

“You’re a wuss” Walt laughed.

“So you’re doing just fine I suppose?” Charlie asked.

“Don’t listen to him” Billy interjected.  “I heard him praying to the porcelain god last night.  He just blew all of his liquor out.  Old Vietnam dudes never could hold their sauce, especially the 173rd.”

“Oh, look who’s talking.  They sent you 25th Div pansies to a country where there ain’t no alcohol ‘cause they knew you couldn’t handle it and fight a real man’s war.”

“Real man’s war, shit!” Billy laughed.  “Half of the people in Vietnam liked you guys.  All of those fuckers in Iraq hated us.  Besides, I got your ‘real man’s war’ hangin’.  You want him, you just come a-sangin’.”

“Holy shit, shut up you two.  Your heads may not feel like they’re about to explode, but mine does.”

“Oh, make no mistake about it” Billy said, and then the two veterans pointed at each other and said in unison “His does too.”

They spoke a little less after that and continued to walk down the road.  Billy rested from time to time, but surprisingly he seemed to be less affected by the exertions today than he had been the day before.  “It’s the trail candy” he explained, showing them a bottle of Tylenol that he had in his pocket.

“Hey, don’t bogart that shit!” Walt said.  “Pass a little of it over to me.”

“I thought your head didn’t hurt” Billy said.

“Fuck that.  I’m sixty nine years old and tromping around in the woods.  My head’s fine, but my body’s hurting.  You need to learn a little respect.”

“You earn it and I’ll give it” Billy said with a smirk as he handed over the pain killer.

“Are you ladies ever going to shut up?” Charlie asked.  “Give me some of those.”  After taking a couple of the tablets and washing them down with some water he pointed to the place about  fifty yards up the road from where they stood.  “You want to go back to the same spot we were at yesterday?”

“No” Billy replied.  I was thinking about trying for that ridge up there.”

He pointed to a low, forested ridge that ran parallel to higher hills on the other side of the valley where they had looked for wildlife the day before.

“That looks like two, maybe three hundred feet” Walt said.  Maybe one and half klicks away.  Are you sure, young man?”

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good today.”  He then looked at Charlie and finally admitted “Except for the zombie apocalypse that’s going on between my ears.  I’ll let you know when I feel like I’m approaching my limits.”

“Why Walt!  I do believe that you actually care about Billy, or are my ears deceiving me?” Charlie exclaimed.

“Fuck your ears” Walt shot back.  “I just don’t want to have to carry his heavy ass back.”

“Don’t try to shit a shitter, man” Billy said.  “You’d just leave me out here and you know it.”

“Arggghh!” Charlie groaned.  “Let’s get going!  Only walking seems to shut you two up.”

Walt and Billy both threw pebbles at Charlie and as they prepared to begin talking again they heard a shot in the distance.  “Huh!  Some bastard’s getting an early start” Walt opined.

“Or maybe sighting his piece” Billy offered.

They began walking and in a few minutes heard another shot.  “I just hope they stay wherever they are” Charlie said.  “This camo may not have been the best thing to wear.”

“Shit” Billy replied.  “You could be wearing an orange construction barrel and those crazy bastards would shoot at you anyway.  ‘Bout all we can do is keep our eyes and ears open and our fingers crossed.”

They became more silent as they stepped off of the road and onto the valley floor.  There was no path here and the ground, which looked flat from a distance, was in fact made irregular by clumps of grass, prairie dog holes and occasional rocks that were nearly buried in the valley floor.  The change in terrain offered little challenge to Walt and Charlie, but Billy had to walk carefully,and this slowed them down.  Neither Walt nor Charlie commented on this.  Billy was determined to wring the most out of their experience that he could.  Charlie respected this, and he thought it looked like Walt did too.

After a slow transit of the valley they reached the base of the rise which led to the ridge from which they hoped to get a look at some wildlife.  With Billy’s binoculars they knew that they would see it if it was there.

“I have to take five” Billy said, and Charlie broke out the chair.  He and Walt sat on a fallen tree while billy gave his leg a rest.  They chattered softly while they waited for Billy to recover sufficiently to make the next climb towards the top.

“I can make it up to that ridge” he said.  “The fallen timber will be a problem though.  I don’t step over stuff as good as I used to.  I’ll have to go around things instead of over them.  You guys can go ahead, if you get tired of waiting for me.  Just drop some bread crumbs.”

“Aw, shut up, gimp” Walt said.  “I ain’t leaving nobody behind.  Never did, never will.”

Charlie sat silently and thought about his two companions.  Walt was more than thirty years older than Billy and unrelated, but the two interacted as if they were brothers.  They bickered and insulted each other in ways that would make anybody who didn’t know them worry that a fist fight was imminent.  But the connection between these two men, forged in the fires of hellish combat and tempered by their common struggle to come to grips with a world that couldn’t begin to understand what they had experienced or how hard they must work in order to be able to fit back into that world, was a bond that was stronger than the metal that had ripped through both of their bodies.

Walt had returned to a society where many had spat at him and wished that he would have died in the jungles of Vietnam.  Billy had returned to a new society that politely said “Thank you for your service,” and then quickly forgot that he existed, hurt and struggling to regain his balance.  It’s possible that the second was worse than the first.

Charlie thought of his own struggle; how he had looked upon the battered and lifeless body of his beloved daughter, lost everything that he had, including his will to live, and only stayed alive by the – what, providential? – intervention of a cranky borderline sociopath veteran, a Jewish Christian young woman, an overworked waitress in a downtown greasy spoon restaurant, and a soft-spoken counselor with great kitchen skills and laser beam insights into the heart of the matter.  Charlie felt like he owed these people more than they could ever know.

“All right” Walt finally said as he stood up.  “Let’s get – – – Shit!”

Standing ten feet to the side of Walt was a man in the green and khaki uniform of a game warden, who had moved up on them without making the slightest sound or giving away his presence in any manner.  Walt’s hand instinctively moved towards the weapon that he had concealed under his camo shirt.

“Please don’t do that, sir” the warden said, placing his hand on the butt of his own sidearm.

“What the fuck do you mean, sneaking up on people?” Walt growled at the agent.  The agent replied by simply repeating his request.

“Sir, please move your hand away from your side.”

Billy rose up out of his chair to take a stand beside his friend.  The warden clearly did not like this development and said “I’m going to need for both of you to keep your hands where I can see them, and I’m going to need for you all to sit down on that log.”

“And I’m going to need for you to kiss my ass and telll the world that you like it” replied a thoroughly incensed Walt.  Billy then began to edge off to his right, increasing the distance between him and Walt and making it harder for the warden to cover  both men.

Charlie knew that this was getting way out of control and would, in all likelihood, end badly.  “Walt! Billy!  This guy’s a game warden” he said.  “He’s out here doing his job.”

“I don’t know who the fuck he is and I don’t care who the fuck he is” Walt replied.  “He just sneaks up on us with his hand on his gun.  he can just fuck himself and go wherever the hell he came from, as far as I’m concerned.”

The warden’s face, which already looked hard as flint, seemed to ratchet a notch even tighter.  “What the hell should I do” Charlie asked himself, and then a thought squeezed into his nearly paralyzed mind.

“Wait, everybody.  Just wait one minute, OK?”  He looked at the warden and asked “This is about the shots that we heard, what” – he turned and asked Walt and Billy – “about an hour ago?”

The warden never moved his eyes off Billy and Walt, nor shifted his hand away from the butt of his gun.  He answered, saying “Yes, there were shots reported.  They were reported to be heard somewhere around here.  You are somewhere around here.  That makes me wonder about you.  Makes me want to see your hands clear of your body, too.”

“Walt,” Charlie implored.  “Billy.  You guys have heard a shot or two before.  Where do you think those came from?  For Christ’s sake, you talk military all the time, so military this.  What can you tell the warden about those shots?”

“The two veterans’ attention on the warden seemed to waver just a bit.  Billy looked at Walt and slightly shrugged his shoulders.  “There weren’t this many trees in the whole damned country of Iraq” he said.  “My guess is that way” and he nodded his head toward the left, up an extension of the valley that they had just crossed.

“Plenty of trees in Vietnam” Walt said, keeping his eyes on the warden.  “But you’re right.  To the southwest.  Can’t tell the distance or direction of fire.  Too many echoes in the valley.”

“What type of weapon, Walt?” Charlie asked.  “Could you tell what kind of weapon was being used?”

“Billy answered before Walt could.  “Small caliber, probably a long gun.  That was the first one, anyway.  Couldn’t tell about the second; muffled by something.

The warden saw Charlie’s attempt to engage his friends in something other than a wild west shoot out, and saw his two potential adversaries responding to Charlie’s intervention.  He decided to follow up with his own questions.

“You men military?” he asked.  Walt and Billy nodded in the affirmative.

“Then you know that a warden approaching a party of men who are probably armed in an area where poaching is almost certainly going on will be quiet and cannot afford to be careless, right?”

“Of course that’s right!” Charlie exclaimed.  “The second shot.  That was a hand gun, if I was to make a guess.  A small caliber rifle that will make less noise was used to injury the prey and the coup de grace was administered with a large caliber hand gun.  The sound of that will carry even less distance than the rifle.  That’s how it works, isn’t it warden?”

“That’s about the way of it” said the warden.

“And we’re here with a couple of handguns” Charlie continued.  Guys, it  makes sense.  This man’s only doing his job and trying to not get himself killed in the process.  Don’t you think we should help him do this?  I can’t stand a damned poacher anyway.”

Walt and Billy looked at each other for a moment.  It was Billy who finally said “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  He looked back at the warden and asked “How do you want to do this?”

The warden did not look like he had relaxed very much.  He began to give instructions to Billy.  “You will carefully lift your shirt.  I will remove your weapon and examine it to see if it has been recently fired.  If that is not the case then I have no further need to impose upon your time and we can all go on about our business.

Billy nodded his assent and reached slowly for the edge of his camp shirt.

“One at a time” instructed the warden.

Charlie could see a ‘fuck you’ formed on Walt’s lips, but to his relief the phrase was not expressed.  Billy slowly raised his shirt and the warden walked carefully over to him and extracted the gun.  He opened the cylinder and saw that it contained a full load of live rounds.  He smelled the weapon and looked for new powder residue.  Billy kept a clean weapon, and it was quickly obvious to the expert eyes of the warden that this weapon had not been recently fired.

“Now you, sir” the warden said to Walt.

“Come on, Walt” Billy said.  “We got this thing all wrong.  Let’s everybody go home happy today, OK?”

Walt relaxed slightly but visibly.  He moved to raise his shirt, a little too quick for the warden’s comfort, and exposed the .44.  The warden repeated the process and determined that this weapon had not been fired either.

“Thank you for your cooperation, gentlemen” he said at last.  “That’s a magnificent weapon you have there, sir” he said to Walt.  “So you say that you heard those shots to the southwest?”

“That’s right” Billy said.  “Isn’t it Walt?  What d’you say, maybe a klick?

“No more’n that” Walt replied.  “And if they’re skinning a buck, they’re probably still there or not far away.”

“More likely a doe, the bastards” Billy said.  “Poachers aren’t usually picky.”

“Well, thank you for your cooperation” the warden said to them.  “I’m sorry for disturbing your day.  I think I’ll see if I can pay our friends a visit now.  Military, eh”  What branch?”

“Army” they answered in unison.

“173rd Airborne” Walt said.  Vietnam.

“25th Div” Billy echoed.  “Mosul, Iraq.”

“2nd Armored” the warden said.  “Tiger Brigade.  Gulf war.”

“The Tiger Brigade!  You boys kicked some serious ass” Billy noted after giving a low whistle.  “Tank warfare.  That would be sweet.  You can see the bastard that’s trying to kill you.”

“It has its ups and downs” the warden said.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Would you like a little back-up?” Walt asked.  He was beginning to get a clearer view of what had just happened, and what almost just happened.

 

“No thank you, gentlemen” he answered.  “I do this thing best when I do it my own way.”  He then turned to walk away but after a few steps stopped and turned back to face the men and said “Since you’re only out here to see the game, I spotted a nice elk bull with a couple of cows off a bit to the north of west.  You climb up that ridge, you should be able to see them if you have a decent set of field glasses.”  Billy held up his Zeiss binoculars.  “Yeah, you should see them just fine with those.  You all have a very nice day now.”

The warden disappeared into the forest and left the three men staring silently.  At last Charlie exhaled loudly and sat back down on the log.  He looked at his hands, which were trembling, and then looked up at the two men who stared silently at him.

“What’s the matter,” he asked.  “Haven’t you ever seen a guy who has nearly shit his pants before?  What the hell’s the matter with you two?  That was a U.S. Fucking Fish and Wildlife guy, or a Washington State Fucking Fish and Wildlife guy, and you wanna play Gunsmoke with him?  Shit!  Even if you win, the President or the Governor or whoever is that guy’s boss will bring the full weight of the establishment on top of your asses, or just take you out here and shoot you and feed you to the fish.”

“When I was in combat some guys really did shit their pants – – -“ Walt began to say, but Charlie cut him off.

“Oh no, man.  I don’t want to hear any more fucking war stories just now, OK?”

Charlie began to shake more violently.  Billy approached him tentatively and knelt down next to him.  “Charlie” he began.  “You’re right.  We screwed up.  That guy came out of nowhere and spooked Walt.  Me too, to tell the truth.  He had a piece on him and seemed to be  threatening us, or it looked that way to both of us.  So we reacted.  Didn’t react well, I guess, but we reacted.  I’m sorry.

Look, this is the load that I’m carrying.  Walt is carrying his own, and I won’t try to describe his.  It’s hard to let it go.  ‘Kill or be killed.’  I know that you’ve heard that phrase.  With us, it means more than it does for others; for people who haven’t been where we’ve been.  It really means that you have to make somebody be dead or they’ll make you be dead.  I’m working hard to put that behind me.  Walt is too.  But it never really goes away.  You try to put that animal in a cage.  I try to put that animal in a cage every day.  But you can’t kill it.  It just won’t die.”

Charlie wrestled to get his shakes under control, and at last he looked at his two friends and said “OK.  I guess I just learned a little about your problems today.  I have my own shit to deal with, like I don’t like to even see the ocean since Stevie died, or see much of anything from my old life.  I guess I didn’t realize how deep your pain runs.  I’m sorry I popped off, but jeez, fellows, next time could you pick on a smaller guy that’s packing only a slingshot?”

“We’ll try” Billy said with the first chuckle that anyone had managed since the confrontation had begun.  “Just for you.  Now, let’s go see if we can find that bull and his harem.”

The three men began to pick their way through the forest obstacles as they made their way up the hill to the ridge.  Walt’s estimate was pretty close, and from a height of about three hundred feet above the valley floor they had a commanding view of that valley in three directions.  Two low ranges of scrub and tree covered hills split that valley into three wide spokes as if of a wheel radiating from a hub that was their place on the west end of the ridge.

Billy was gassed by the time they reached that point.  Charlie quickly opened up the chair for him and he plopped unceremoniously into it and popped a couple of Tylenol tablets into his mouth.

“Don’t take too much of that” Charlie said.  “It’s hard on your liver.”

“Thanks Mom” Billy replied.  “It’s my damned leg that’s my first concern at this present time.  Here” he handed the binoculars to Walt.  “See if you can see anything down there.”

Walt began to scan the valley floor in the direction that the warden said he had seen the elk, but without luck.  He scanned more to the south, looking for the warden, but knew that he wasn’t likely to see him.  “Crafty son of a bitch” he muttered.”

“What’s that?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, nothing.  I was just trying to see which way Ranger Rick was going.  The man knows how to move in the woods pretty good.  That’s impressive, for a Tanker.”

“I’ll bet he grew up here” Billy said, “or somewhere a lot like here.  I followed some tanks in Iraq.  Big suckers.   Bigger than those cracker boxes you followed in The Nam.  The guys pushing those things had steel balls.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that” Walt allowed.  “I hung with the guys from the 11th Armored Cav.  Crazy sons of bitches, and always ready for a fight.”

Charlie was thoroughly tired of hearing war stories by this point in the day, but he didn’t want to complain about it.  He had already chewed his two friends out and didn’t want to continue down that road.  ‘Let me have a peek” he finally said, not being able to think of anything else to say.  Walt handed him the binoculars and Charlie began to scan the valley.

He, too, began by looking for the warden.  That one man was going up the valley somewhere looking for a party of at least one armed man and probably more that was engaged in an illegal activity and would not fare well if he, or they, were caught.  Charlie felt a chill of dread for the warden and a deep admiration for his commitment to his job.  “Godspeed, officer what’s your name” he thought, and then he saw movement out of the right side of his field of view.

“Hey guys” Charlie said, pointing without putting down the glasses.  “A quarter of the way up the side of the first foothill of that mountain with two peaks.”

He passed the glasses quickly to Billy, who found the two peaks and then scanned down to the foothills and found the clearing in the thick woods.  “Yeah!  I see them!  Yeah!  Good eye, Charlie.”

“Gimme an look” pleaded Walt, and Billy passed the glasses over to him.  It took only a minute for Walt to find the clearing and then the elk that had moved fully into it.  “Son of a bitch, ain’t he something?” Walt asked.  “That’s one hell of a bull.  Shit, man, I don’t know if I could shoot his ass; good looking character like that.”

Walt became aware of the silence and put down the binoculars.  Charlie and Billy were looking at him with frank amazement all over their faces.  “What?” he asked.  “What’re you two apes looking at?”

“Why, Walt.  I believe that you are showing compassion” Charlie said.  “I’m not sure I know how to handle that.”

“Don’t get carried away” Walt said.  “I get hungry, I’m shooting him faster than white of rice.”

“Forget that, man” Billy said.  “I just saw you give a shit about something.  What day is this?  Yeah, Seventh of September.  I’m putting this in my journal.”

“You can put it up your ass” Walt growled, and returned to looking through the glasses.

“Hey, come on, Bogie.  Lemme look” Billy said as he picked up a stick and poked Walt in the ribs with it. Walt handed the binoculars to Billy, saying “Here.  Play with these so that you won’t play with yourself.”

Billy studied the clearing off in the distance and made occasional sounds of admiration.  At last he handed the binoculars to Charlie and said “Here.  They’re about out of sight.”

Charlie picked up the animals, which were near an edge of the clearing.  The bull raised his head and bellowed at the cows, who crowded around him and passed into the cover of the forest.  The regal elk gave the area one last close look, and then seemed to look directly back at Charlie over the many hundreds of yards that separated the two species, before moving with a stately grace into the covering forest.  After a minute of staring at where the elk had disappeared, Charlie put down the glasses.

“Son of a bitch” he said.  “I wouldn’t shoot him either.  That guy’s been through the wars, and I wouldn’t be the guy to take him out!”

After giving Billy time to rest, they began to trace their way back down the hill.  the ankle motion necessary to go downhill was harder on Billy than the ascent had been, and by the time that they reached the valley floor he was hobbling badly.

“You going to make it?” Walt asked, and he was not joking this time.

“I’ll make it” Billy replied through gritted teeth.  I just can’t say how long that’ll take me.”

“Well, there’s no hurry” Charlie said.  “You have a seat on that log and let’s have a bit to eat.”  He passed out some energy bars and then pulled out the half pint bottle of whiskey.  “Oh, look what I found” he said. “Maybe this will help things along.”

All three took a pull off of the bottle. Walt handed it back to Charlie, who  stashed it in his pack and they chatted while the snacks and whiskey did their work.  After a short while Billy emerged from his chair, more through determination than being actually prepared for more exertion, and said “Let’s get home.  I think I need some real food.”

It was early evening when the three men returned to camp.  Billy sat in his chair while Walt and Charlie packed away their gear in the back of the van.

“Still no way that I can drive?” Charlie asked.

“Up yours” Walt responded predictably.

“OK.  Let’s get the hell out of hear.”

They drove out of the forest, crossing over gravel and paved roads until they at last gained the state highway that led to the town of Colville.  The Acorn Saloon provided thick steaks and mashed potatoes and gravy and mug after mug of strong coffee.

“We should be home in six hours” Walt said as they paid up and returned to the van with a thermos full of the Acorn’s hot coffee.  “Unless I decide to drive to great little whorehouse that I know about in Yakima”

“Yeah.  Right.  Whatever” Billy said.  “Just get me home first.  Then you can go screw yourself for all I care.”

Walt laughed as he fired his van up and pulled out of the parking lot onto the pavement and then down U.S. Highway 395 toward Spokane, and beyond that back home to Vancouver.