Charlie Hamer pounded his fist into the dirt, which did nothing to assuage his frustration. He had just pulled up the weed which had sprung up next to an onion that he had planted from seed. The roots of the weed had become entangled with the roots of the onion, and both came up out of the damp, brown earth together. To make matters worse, Charlie’s aim was off and instead of simply burying his knuckles in the dirt, he accidentally flattened an adjacent seedling which had committed no other crime than to be growing where Charlie’s fist came down.
“Damn it!” Charlie barked. “Damn it! Damn It! Damn it!” Charlie looked at the corpses of the two onions and then sat back in the dirt of the garden. He put his head on his knees and quietly sobbed until tears and snot were running down his face and onto his hands and knees.
“Are you all right?” was the question that came from a voice nearby. Charlie was reluctant to look up and acknowledge the voice. He was not comfortable showing such emotion in public and had always striven to prevent crying where he could be seen. Many times at weddings and funerals, or even watching a sappy movie on the television with his ex-wife Evie, Charlie would think about football games or Civil War campaigns or a complicated construction project that he had worked on in the past in order to deflect his mind from whatever was threatening to draw out his tears. That stratagem had rarely worked, but he tried it anyway, so uncomfortable was he with showing emotion. Now Charlie had no time to retrace in his mind the Battle of Chickamauga, so with barely repressed sobs he looked up in the direction from which the voice had come.
Standing at the edge of his 20’ X 20’ garden plot at the Muir Park Community Garden in Camas, Washington was the young woman who tended the plot just to the east of his own. They had hardly spoken a dozen words in the two months that he had been working his plot that spring. Charlie stared up at her with eyes blurred with tears. He drew the sleeve of his loose, long-sleeved shirt across his nose, not caring two cents that he left a streak of glistening mucous that resembled a slug’s trail along that sleeve.
“No, I don’t suppose that I am all right.” Charlie stated peevishly, already beginning to think about the landing of the Marines on the beach at Guadalcanal in August of 1942. “This is not the way that I carry on when everything is just hunky-dory.” Charlie saw the woman flinch, and her face turned a light shade of red.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude” the woman said stiffly. “I thought that you might be – – -, well, I’m just sorry. That’s all.”
The woman turned away and walked across a four foot border path and back onto her own garden plot, her back ramrod straight and turned to Charlie. Charlie sat, collecting himself, looking first at the onions that he had just murdered, and then at the back of the woman who had been stung by his pain-spawned outburst. He then looked straight in front of him and saw the guy with the pot belly who tended the plot just to the north.
Pot-belly was a crusty geezer of at least sixty five years. Charlie knew this because the old guy had spoken of receiving medicare benefits one day. His chatter had been bothering the hell out of Charlie as he tried to focus that day on building a trellis for the green beans that he hoped to grow.
“I’m going to get what I can out of the system before the goddam politicians bankrupt it” Pot Belly had declared with his usual absence of delicacy. Charlie just nodded and continued with his trellis building. The geezer didn’t really need a response; any breathing blob of protoplasm that could maintain homeostasis and wouldn’t turn its back on him was audience enough to keep the geezer going for far longer that Charlie would volunteer to listen.
“That’s a sweet little piece of ass that works the plot next to you” the geezer had said one day, and on this day the unending verbal wood rasp chaffed a little flesh off of Charlie. The young woman was an adult; Charlie could see that clearly enough, but she didn’t look to be a lot of years older than his daughter would have now been. The rasp that drew across the flesh over Charlie’s bruised and bleeding heart today drew a purulent wave of stinking emotional pus that oozed out of the wreckage that now rested there in his chest.
“I would prefer that you don’t speak of her, or any other woman within my hearing, in that manner to me” Charlie snapped. Her ass is her business, and I’ll be content to look after my own.” The geezer had looked surprised by Charlie’s outburst but was hardly chagrined. He simply shrugged his shoulders and returned to building frames around his tomato plants. On this day, geezer just looked at Charlie, shook his head a little, and turned back to his bed of beets and carrots.
Charlie felt bad about his response to the woman’s act of compassion. He rose up from his sitting position and as he did so he stirred up the dust, which settled on his sleeve and highlighted the shot that had now soaked into the fabric. Charlie scowled at the brown streak but realized that it would be useless to try to wipe it off, so he ignored it. He walked over to the edge of the garden plot to within a few feet of where the woman was bent over, wresting weeds and grass from between corn shoots which had just emerged from the ground.
“Excuse me, Miss” Charlie said. “I believe that I owe you an apology.”
The woman continued to work at her weeds for enough additional seconds to convey that she had little interest in Charlie’s apology. At last she straightened and turned to face him. She said nothing as she looked at Charlie with an expressionless face. Charlie became confused at her silence and began to look at his fingers and snot-stained sleeve as he shifted his weight from one foot to another. The woman at last broke the silence.
“I believe that you said you owe me an apology. You’re right. You do. You don’t have to give me one, but if it will make you feel better I would be willing to hear it.”
Charlie looked at her for a moment longer, tongue-tied and embarrassed. He realized that she was right; he had made the offer and it was time to follow through.
“Oh, yes. You’re right. You were trying to be nice to me and I snapped at you. You didn’t deserve that and I apologize for my bad temper. Thank you for the concern that you showed to me. I’ve had a nasty couple of years and I’ve lost the knack for behaving well with other people. I have no right to take it out on you though. I’ve just gotten off track with the social graces.”
Charlie looked back down at his fingers, digging some dirt out from under this thumbnail. When he looked back up the woman’s expression had softened. She said “Apology accepted, and I hope that your day gets better.”
“Thank you” Charlie replied softly. His day wasn’t the problem; it was the last two years that were a weight that he could hardly carry anymore.
“My name’s Rachael” the woman said. “I don’t mean to pry, and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. but if it’s alright to ask, what was it that set you off over there?”
“I was pulling up a weed that had its roots already wrapped around an onion sprout. I tried to pull the weed and ended up pulling both of them out of the ground. I had forgotten how much work went into this gardening thing and how intentional it has to be.”
“Yes,” Rachael said, “gardening isn’t done by accident. Well, welcome to our little world; it can be a blessing and, when you lose a crop to cucumber beetles or tomato blight, a damned curse.” Rachael chuckled at her own statement, as if the memory of past gardening failures and frustrations came to her mind as a joke more than an annoyance. “I am not the best gardener in the world” she stated to Charlie. “But what I know I would be happy to share with you.”
“Thank you” Charlie replied. “I hate to be a bother, but I don’t doubt that I need all of the help that I can get. Oh, by the way, my name’s Charlie Hamer and I now formally agree to take you up on your kind offer. But maybe some other day.”
Rachael thrust forward her hand in a grand manner and Charlie took it and gave it a grave shake. They then separated to return to their own gardens. Charlie resumed plucking the weeds out of the dirt between his onion plants, but now more judiciously. He was absorbed in his work and didn’t notice that the geezer from the adjacent plot had walked over and was standing nearby until the old guy cleared his throat. Charlie looked up and wasn’t concerned whether displeasure showed on his face or did not.
“Excuse me for butting in” he began, “but I heard that you had a problem with pulling some of your weeds. If you would like I could share a little trick with you.” Charlie wanted mostly to be left alone, but he had already been rude once today and didn’t feel like repeating that performance. “Oh, it looks like I need all of the help that I can get today,” he replied.
“OK, so here’s how it is. These weeds come up right in the middle of what you want to keep and it’s impossible to get some of them out without harming the good stuff.”
“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.
“So I keep these little snips,” the old guy pulled what looked like a pair of outdoor scissors with a short, sharp blade, “and just clip the tops of the weeds every other day or so. You can’t get rid of some weeds, but you can sure manage the little bastards.”
“What good will that do?” Charlie asked. “The weed is still there, and still competing for nutrients with my onion. My father taught me to get the weed by the roots once and then you’ll not have to do it again.”
“Your Dad was mostly right. Sometimes, though, it isn’t feasible. Like in your case here, for instance. What you have to do in these circumstances is keep the weed from thriving. The leaves feed the weed plant, and so if you keep it clipped and let the onion grow. The strong survive and the weak gets pushed aside. You really are new to this, aren’t you?”
“I really don’t want to get chummy with this guy” Charlie thought. “Maybe he’ll just impart some wisdom and go away.”
“Yes, this is my first year here.”
“Well, then welcome to our community. My name’s Walt, and I would be happy to give you some tips if you would like to hear them. It looks like you’ve had at least a little experience though.”
“Yeah, you’re right. My father made me help him in the garden when I was a kid. I hated it and hated vegetables, which is why he did it I think. Dad was pretty good at growing things and a little bit of that rubbed off on me. Not very much though, it seems.”
“Well, the let me share with you the little bit that I know.”
Walt proceeded to show Charlie how to build proper beds for planting tomatoes and cucumbers, how to protect bean seedlings from slugs and a dozen other techniques designed to coax clean food out of the dirt. By the end of an hour Charlie had a respectable looking garden and the beginning of a new opinion of Walt. The old guy was crusty, to be sure, and his language as earthy as the soil into which Charlie had just deposited beet and carrot seeds, but Charlie could see that Walt cared about him and his garden. That human connection had been missing in Charlie’s life for – how long had it been? More than a year now. Charlie didn’t feel the need for a confession, but a kind ear was not a bad thing to have.
“What brought you back to gardening?” Walt asked. “My Dad used to make me play the violin and I haven’t touched one of the damned things since the day I turned 18.”
Charlie hesitated. He hadn’t talked about his life with anybody for a long time, and while his usual reticence to be open with anyone was still strong, the need for human contact had begun to grow in him. At last Charlie decided to pull the curtain back, a little at least, and see what would come of it.
“Well, I’ve had a pretty shitty last couple of years” Charlie began. “My wife ran off with my pickup truck and took my dog too.” Charlie tried to smile at his little attempt at humor, with scant effect.
“Yeah” Walt replied. “I hate it when that happens. I’ll bet she held the title on your single wide too.”
“Yeah. She took it clean.”
For another moment Charlie stared down at his feet. Then, with a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders he looked up at Walt. Tears were once again forming in his eyes and he had to clear his throat two or three times before he could speak clearly. Finally he could begin.
“Well, my wife really has left me,” Charlie began. He sniffed back a nose full of snot and coughed to clear his throat again. “We didn’t have a dog, but we did have two kids; a girl and a boy.” Charlie had to stop there once again and regain his control. Thinking about some military action was just not going to draw his attention away from his grief, so he just studied the new bed that housed a tomato plant while he got his act back together. Walt at last spoke to fill the uncomfortable silence.
“Yeah, I’ve heard from a friend that divorce is a bitch, especially when kids are involved. I’ve never been in that situation, but I do believe that it’s tough. Do you have visitation rights? I know of some divorce lawyers who are really good at fighting for stuff like that.”
Charlie stared blankly at Walt for a moment, and then said “visitation is not a problem for me. I can visit Stevie’s grave any time that I want.”
Walt stood in front of Charlie, still as a statue. Charlie’s shoulders slumped forward and his head was down. The sobs returned, but this time softly. Charlie wasn’t trying to hold anything back, but he was simply exhausted from having carried this load for so long. Walt put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder but said nothing, which was probably the best thing that he could have done.
The young woman, who had been listening to this while trying to not appear as if she was eavesdropping, now dropped all pretense. She stood up, took off her gloves, and walked over to where the two men were standing. Coming up to charlie she said “I’m sorry that I was listening to your story, but I’ve heard it anyway and I can see that you are hurting. I can’t imagine the pain that you are feeling. Would you let me give you a hug?”
Charlie wished desperately that there was someplace where he could hide. The grief that he carried was like an anchor of lead and he was just tired as hell of carrying it. Charlie had lived a solitary life for over a year and now the idea of the enfolding arms of a compassionate stranger were a gift that he had not expected, and one that he readily accepted. She placed her arms around his shoulders and gave him a gentle embrace, which she held silently for what might have been two or three minutes. Charlie’s sobs continued and he tried, with mixed success, to keep tears and snot off of her shoulder. At last Charlie regained control and the young woman released her embrace and stepped back.
“My name is Monica” she said, “and if you would like to take a break from the garden and tell your story I would be happy hear it. Sometimes it is good to pick the scab and let some of that stuff ooze out. I will understand if that is not something that you want to do, but if you think it will help I will be glad to do it.”
“I think that she’s right” Walt chimed in. “I’m in a PTSD group, and letting out the bad air is usually a good thing to do. If you’re up to it of course. We could take ten and go sit under the canopy.”
“Take ten?” asked Monica.
“Oh, you kids” Walt smiled. “Take a ten minute break. In the Army, when we were marching from one place to another, every so often the company commander would say “Take ten, hope for five, get two.” He was talking about taking a rest, and ‘ten’ could really mean just about anything.”
The three of them walked out of the garden plots and over to a covered area that they called the canopy. There were several plastic chairs and a rickety wooden bench that had been exposed to too many winters there. They found seats and waited quietly as Charlie tried to get his thoughts together. It was obviously a struggle, and after a short while Walt decided that the pump needed to be primed, so he began to speak.
“I don’t know anything about you’re problem, man, and I don’t want to turn this into a pity party. I told you that I’m in a PTSD group, that means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in case you aren’t familiar with it – and I have seen that it sometimes helps to know that you’re not alone in this world of hurt. Can I tell you a story?”
Charlie nodded in the affirmative, and Charlie began to speak. “I’m sixty nine years old. I wasn’t three months out of high school before I was drafted. Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder and six months later I was pounding ground in The Nam. I was 11B. A grunt. My paid vacation in the tropics took me to Dak To, Pleiku, and a hundred hilltops and villages and valleys with names and numbers that I’ve either forgotten or am still trying to forget. I just wanted to survive my year and go home, but it didn’t go quite that smoothly. Somehow I would always find myself in the hottest shit that was going down in-country, and usually when I least expected it. I made some friends early on, but when my first buddy’s head exploded right next to me like a melon with a cherry bomb inside of it, and then another got gutted like a fish by a bouncing betty land mine, I quit making friends. Oh, we covered each other’s asses all right, but I wasn’t making any more friends ‘cause I didn’t like seeing them die on me. We went from one engagement to another; some that made the news but most that didn’t; some that made sense but most that didn’t. Big or small, smart or stupid, they had one thing in common: men got torn open. Men bled and men died.
When I was taken out of the jungle and assigned to an armored unit that mostly secured a road from Saigon to the highlands I thought that maybe I would make it out of there in one piece. At least we weren’t walking around in the bush looking for trouble. Now I got to spend some time in an APC – oh, sorry. I mean and armored personnel carrier – and sometimes I rode shotgun on a jeep. The best thing to me, as I saw it was that I didn’t have to walk so goddam much, and sometimes had something metal to hide in. In fact, my new posting made me feel like I was the hunter instead of the hunted.
We were on the road to Cu Chi one day and it seemed quiet. I was sitting in the back of a jeep, manning the machine gun. I can still remember that I was thinking ‘I could like this country, if they weren’t fucking shooting at me that is,’ when some VC bastard opened up on me as we passed by. The little son of a bitch must have come up from a tunnel, because nobody saw him come up or go down. I felt like a quarterback who got tackled by a 300 pound dickdoo. I got knocked forward and landed on top of the passenger up front. I thought that I couldn’t get a good breath because the wind had been knocked out of me. I later found out that it was because the little fucker had walked a couple or three rounds up my back and blew out my left lung.”
“Dickdoo?” asked Monica.
“Yeah. One of those big linemen who’s bellies droop lower than their dicks do.”
“Oh”, Monica replied. “Sorry I asked.”
Walt paid no attention to Monica, and at that point lifted the bottom of his tee shirt and pulled it over his head. Fifty years after the fact the discolored, blotchy exit wounds still disfigured Walt’s belly and chest. “Lucky for me he went from right to left. The prick missed my right kidney and aorta, but he punctured my left lung and got my spleen. Recovery was long and hard though, and I can’t be around kids because without a spleen, if anyone gets a cold I catch it.
The worst part for me was that when I got home I got shat on by just about everybody. I grew up in Seattle, but Seattle wasn’t my home when I returned. I still had to convalesce after they released me, first from the hospital and then from the Army. Until my hair grew out and I was no longer identifiable as military, people spat at me and called me shit that you wouldn’t believe. I was still so weak that I couldn’t murder the bed-wetting little sons of bitches with my bare hands, which I would have loved to do, so I dreamed of getting an M-16, putting it on full auto, and killing as many of the snot-nosed pukes as I could before the police took me out.
A smart doc at the VA hospital picked up on that and got me hooked up with a psychologist and a PTSD group; other guys who saw the same shit that I did and in some cases even worse. I can’t tell you how much that helped. I still have trouble with dreams and loud noises – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve aren’t my favorite days of the year – but mostly I can function OK now.”
Walt stopped speaking and looked at Charlie and Monica, who were standing in front of him speechless.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. ”You two never seen a bat-shit crazy Vietnam vet before?”
Charlie allowed a little chuckle a little at that, and Walt said “That’s better. You’re not the only guy with a wood file up his ass, see? So what’s your story?”
Charlie’s mind returned to his pain, but the knowledge that somebody was with him who knew what pain was made all the difference in the world.
“Well, two years ago my daughter died in a surfing accident.” Charlie’s throat tightened up again, but after a moment or two it loosened back up. “She was in cold water off of the Oregon coast. It was good surf, and we think that she just stayed out in it too long, until the cold overwhelmed her suit. Hell, we don’t really know to this day what happened. They found her in a cove, pretty beat up by the waves bouncing her off of the rocks. An autopsy couldn’t pinpoint a particular reason for her death. It’s like the goddam ocean just rose up and took her.
After we buried Stevie – her name was Stephanie, after her grandmother – nothing could get back to right in our home. Insignificant things became issues. What was once just an annoyance became a crisis. I can’t say that Maureen and I ever quit loving each other, but any return to normal seemed like a betrayal of Stevie. Because it WASN’T normal. It could never be normal again. After a year we separated, and two months later Mo filed for divorce. I didn’t fight the divorce. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy. Hell, I didn’t care. Jack, our son, was mad at the world but focused most of his anger at me, and I didn’t do much to help him out. I couldn’t do much to help myself out. Mo never tried to poison Jack’s relationship with me but she saw that it was over, for now anyway, so she took my son with her and moved out of state.
We settled the whole thing without a fight. I liquidated my company, Hamer Properties & Construction – you might have seen some of our signs around the county. I gave her the whole damned enchilada. The company went for a pretty penny; enough for her and Jack to be comfortable for the rest of their lives if they’re careful. I do handyman work now and live in a studio downtown. It’s all I need. My family doesn’t live close to me, but they told me that I should get out of my cave, get some fresh air and meet people. Well, this is out. I guess this air is as fresh as any around here, and I decided to start with plants and work my way back up to people.”
The three gardeners sat silently after Charlie wrapped up his story. It was warm, with hardly a breath of a breeze. Charlie saw a snake slither between rows of a neighboring gardner’s spinach plants. He pointed it out and Walt said “Ugh. I hate snakes.”
“That’s a garter snake” Monica said. “They eat slugs, among other things. I’m glad he’s there.”
“Yeah?” said Walt. “Well you didn’t have to put up with the fucking snakes that I did in Vietnam. They called ‘em ‘step-and-a-half’s ‘cause that’s about as far as you would get after one of the sons of whores bit you before you were face-down in the jungle.”
“Well, if I see a step-and-a-half Walt, I’ll surely chop his damn head off” said Charlie with a chuckle, which, if the other two gardeners had known Charlie better, would have known that this chuckle was the first hint of a release from his pain that he had shown in many months.’’
Monica spoke up at this point and said “I have nothing like the stories you guys do. My family is fine, and I’ve not had any major trauma. I’m a Messianic Jew however, which is a Jew in all ways except that I believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”
“I don’t believe any of that hocus locus bullshit” said Walt. “I never saw no God when young men were blowing each other to bloody goddam pieces in Vietnam.”
“I don’t care whether you believe it or not Walt. I’m not trying to convert you. I’m telling you what story I have to tell. Will you allow me to do that?”
“OK, ok. Fair enough” Walt replied. “I guess I get a little cranky about all of that. I’m sorry. Go on.”
“Thank you Walt. My family is Jewish but not religious. It’s an ethnic thing. I was raised Jewish with the understanding that I could decide for myself if I wanted to go fully into the faith or remain outside of it. My parents never dreamed that I would choose to follow Jesus. At first they were really pissed; I mean, Jews don’t do that. I told them that I was exercising the freedom that they gave me, and they accepted that. Eventually. Sort of.
But it was hard. Other Jews want nothing to do with me. I am functionally cut off from the faith of my birth. And Christians don’t really know what to do with me either. I know that you don’t buy any of this Walt, and I don’t know what you believe or don’t believe Charlie, and that’s OK. I’m not asking. It’s none of my business and I don’t look to stick my nose in it. But you guys were talking about being separated from friends or people you love, even society. And traumatically too. I’ve tasted that as well. Not the seven course meal that you two have had to choke down, but I’ve tasted it.
Now I work for the City, providing counseling for abused and disturbed children. I won’t share names or circumstances, but I’ve seen young lives that have been through meat grinders like you’ve described before they had tits or pimples. That doesn’t make me an expert on experiencing pain, but I’m pretty familiar with trying to clean up after it, all the while knowing that I may not really do any lasting good at all. My faith tells me that I have to try, and hope that Someone from outside the world that we see will do something that will bring a little healing to this screwed up place.”
All three sat in silence for a while longer, pondering what each had said. At length Charlie stood up and said “Thank you both for listening to me, and for telling your stories too. This pain has been killing my soul for a couple of years now, but maybe you two are the beginning of the fresh air that I was told that I needed. I guess I should feed what is good in my life and pull as many weeds as I can. The ones I can’t pull I’ll just have to manage.”
Monica stood and gave Charlie another hug. “That sounds like a good plan. And if you see a snake or two, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” She gave Charlie a pat on the shoulder and then turned and walked back to her garden.
“I hate a fucking snake” growled Walt, but he had a ghost of a smile on his face as he turned and walked back to his own.