Chapter 13 – Jewel

 

She (w)hore her sex on her sleeve.

El Hefe

 

Love the left. There are no bus stops on the left.  Lazy left. Bus back, bus butt.  Point rider.

 

              Bus driver boredom, “I’m going to see if I get up to 60 mph before the next light.”

              With two hundred and some drivers mixed from both genders, working all hours of the day and night, it became common for affairs of the heart to spring up, prompting his trainer to inform him that, “There’s a lot of love at The River.”

              She’d point out single women who she thought he should consider, not knowing his circumstances but assuming that he was unattached.                  

              There was one driver, at The River, who used to turn his bright beams on so that they’d reflect into the mirrors of vehicles in front of him, usually compelling them to pull further ahead so that the lights didn’t blind them.  He referred to this zone, which was created, as his Safety Bubble.             

              Back on the route 60, it was mostly kids and young adults getting on the bus.  The main campus was thirteen miles, or so, from the downtown campus and there were a lot more reasonably priced rentals in town than out there in the country where the primary school was, plus a lot of the kids still lived at home with their parents.  Some of the older kids were married and lived with their spouse and children in town, also.  Now and then a grad student or a professor would ride, and then there were people who knew the system and had nothing to do with the university who would catch a free ride just to go shopping or whatever; it saved them a $1.50 each way – they looked kind of guilty when they climbed aboard, especially if you were a new driver and they thought you might ask them for a school ID.  He never did ask them, figuring it didn’t cost the system anything, really.  After a few weeks or months of driving, drivers would make some “friends” or, at least, get to see some regulars. On Walter’s run, there was a lady professor who wasn’t that old, she appeared to be younger than he was, who had a stroke and needed special attention getting on and off.  There was a young woman who, he assumed, was a graduate teaching assistant or something similar.  She would ride almost every day, including weekends, and got on and off always at the same stops.  He imagined she was from Peru or some similar South American country.  She had a good but not spectacular figure, pleasant face and nice bouncy brunette hair.  At first she seemed extra friendly but later became just polite.  There was Mary who rode mostly on Wednesday and was in a wheelchair.  She got on near the YMCA, was very polite but seemed to be going downhill the more time passed; looked like she suffered from MS.  Some of the regulars were regularly indifferent or impersonal.  The one young girl who kind of glowed, who was always lighting up whenever she got on, was there that day and they said hello.

              “She’s so cute, full of life – just nice,” he thought, as always. 

              That day Walter thought, “She either doesn’t know about the illusion yet or she’s seen through it and found the miracle.” 

              She always made him smile when she climbed aboard.  She was dressed a little different that day, not quite hippy-like but definitely in her own style; the air she brought on board with her smelled fresh, her hair was dark and in curls and a little disheveled.  When Walter’s shift ended, he pulled in to the New Campus, as opposed to the Garage where he started his morning, and exchanged his bus for one of the shuttle vans that the relieving driver drove over to start her shift. 

              “How’s the bus?” she asked.

              “The brakes are a little loud and one of the advertising panels looks like it’s coming loose,” he had said.

              He’d let her know if anything was left on the bus by a passenger and if there had been any problems, in case some angry passenger or free-rider came back to haunt the new driver.  Sometimes they’d talk about union or contract news. The company gave the drivers fifteen minutes, or so, to drive the shuttle van back to the garage and drop off their time card, so there wasn’t a lot of time to waste.

              When Walter got the van back to the garage that day, he ran into some other drivers who had been in his training class whom he hadn’t seen in quite a while so he spent a little time talking with them, something he usually didn’t do.  By the time the conversations were done, Julie was coming in at the end of her run.  She dropped her time slip off at Dispatch and then walked directly over to Walter.

              “Hi,” she said.

              “Hello,” replied Walter.

              “Are you done for the day?” asked Julie.

              “Yep,” came his reply.

              “Want to get a beer?” she asked, “There’s a place I go to, over on Michigan.  That’s near you, isn’t it?

              Walter had to think about this for a minute, as you already know, there was a strong attraction between them.  She was a pretty woman, dark haired, probably about five foot five or six, nice figure through the clothes.  What he liked the most was her face.  He didn’t have the energy for a new relationship, especially not “one on the side”, and though he and Mara were no longer lovers, he did still love her and had no plans to leave her; and then there was Jade.

              “Okay,” he said, “What’s the name of the place?  I’ll just meet you there, if that’ll work for you.”

              “Sure. Great! It’s the Logan’s Ally,” she answered, “Do you know it?”

              “Yah.  I’ve never been inside but I drive by every day. I’ll head over as soon as I change, okay?” from Walter. 

              There was an exercise room with gender specific locker rooms and showers just down the hall from Dispatch.  Walter kept a change of clothes and a few other things in his locker.

              “Yes.  See you in a few,” she said, not smiling but there was a pleased look on her face. 

              Michigan Street was a good representation of River City, in general.  Coming from the direction of the bus garage, heading west to east, when Walter got near his destination he drove past the Selam Store that sold African food, then the American Legion North East Post No. 456, Duke’s bar, Farah’s Bar, The Lord’s Chapel, Howie’s Bar, Bob’s Sports Bar, Angellous where they sold Christian symbols, finally arriving at Logan’s Ally where the sign out front said, 7-11a.m. Happy Hour – that was their morning sign still standing on the sidewalk. 

              “We’re a little early or late,” he thought.

              He got there just a little after Julie and pulled up to the curb a few yards from the front door of the tavern and parked just behind a black Saturn Sky turbo with a custom license plate that read, “Jewels.”   In her mirror, she saw him pull up so she got out of her car and walked back to meet him as he stepped out of his.

              “Thanks for doing this,” she said, and grabbed his hand and pulled him through the front door of the establishment. 

              Inside it was dimly lit but no there was no smoke, like in the old days when he used to drink; the laws had changed things.  It was a pretty standard bar but had its own character; it had a painting of Abe Lincoln with the bar’s name stenciled on his stovepipe hat.   The bar ran along almost the entire length of the western wall, mirrors and glass shelves with bottles behind it.  To the left of the door, as you came in, there were two shuffleboard tables.   He noticed that there were no windows big enough for a person to go through, only a small glassed slit in the door and a window placed about seven feet up the wall measuring a foot on each side, that was in line with the street light out front and it let a little of that glow in.  Along the eastern wall there was a row of fixed tables divided from each other with wooden panels, making them fairly private on three sides.  Between the bar and the fixed tables there was a row of loose tables that could be pushed around to accommodate different sized parties.  The red neon sign over the hallway in the back left corner said, “Restrooms” and there was a swinging door, to the right, that looked to be where the kitchen entrance was.  The place wasn’t too wide but it was long and Walter guessed that there was room for around one hundred citizens and he figured it was about half full right as he got there.   He figured there had to be a back door to the outside somewhere in the kitchen area and, probably, an emergency alarmed exit somewhere past the toilets. 

              Julie, slightly in front of him, took a quick look around and then headed to the next to the last fixed table, the only one still empty, and grabbed a seat.  Walter sat down across from her where he could see anyone who came or went through the front door.  She looked nice; she had washed up a little bit and he could smell the soap, and she had changed into casual clothes, a fuscia colored t-shirt with a V-neck and jeans and sandals.  She was a woman who knew that she was beautiful but didn’t seem to care. Walter still had on his black Diesel boots and dark blue uniform pants but had taken off his white T-shirt and the burgundy uniform shirt he was driving in and now had on a turquoise short-sleeved pullover. 

              They each ordered a beer, Sixpoint Craft Ales, the Bengali Tiger, which had citrus and grapefruit, for her and the Resin, which was a balanced summer brew, for him, and began talking.  Walter used to have an almost insatiable curiosity about people, especially beautiful women, which kept him asking questions, trying to find out about their early life and experiences, wanting to understand what made them tick.  Now, he hardly talked and couldn’t really care less about the past or what made most anyone tick, he just appreciated the moment; it made him quiet.  This silence, on his part, came across as confidence and made him more attractive to most women when, in fact, it was just symptom of his ambivalence.  Confidence, or the lack of it, never entered the equation for Walter. 

              “You’re gorgeous,” thought Walter, and then he asked, “How was your route today?”

              “The usual,” she said, “It’s just a job that pays better than most. Let’s not talk about work.”

              “Is Jewels your real name?” he asked.

              “Sometimes,” she answered, “My family calls me that, and a few good friends, too; for different reasons, I think.  If you know me long enough, you might call me that.  Call me whatever you want.”

              “Heaven on Earth,” he thought but kept it to himself. 

              Their beers arrived and they toasted each other and took a drink.  The liquid was cold and went down smoothly.  He watched her lips on the bottle, her neck as she took the fluid in, a closer look at the fingers on her right hand holding the bottle, her eyelids as she half closed them, tilting her head back slightly.  There was hardness about her. 

              “She wasn’t always this tough;” he thought to himself, “too pretty for that, almost flawless. Life got to her.  She seems to be handling it well.”

              Just as he was finishing his thought, a flash of light went through the bar.  He was aware of it and thought, “Must have been something outside on the street.”

              “Do you run?  You know, jog?” he asked her getting that out of the way.

              “No way,” she said.

              She asked him a few questions.  He deflected, but was charming in doing so. 

              He countered and it opened the floodgates.  She grew up in Detroit and married her high school sweetheart.  He held a blue-collar job but made good money and she didn’t have to work outside of the home.  He also drank and ran around.  She had two kids with him; they were now in their early twenties and lived in Detroit, about three hours away.  She’d see them, usually, about once a month and talk with them several times a week.  She left her husband more because of the physical beatings than the emotional ones and she was still a little bitter about her collapsed dreams but knew it.  Her father left her mother when Julie was in her teens.  Her mother remarried and Julie became very close to her stepdad until recently.  She worshiped her mother and had nothing to do with her biological father because of his leaving.  Her mother died less than two years ago and she got teary when she talked about her.  He stepfather had already found a new girlfriend and Julie was upset about that; it was too soon.  She was a Christian and wanted to be a writer of children’s books and write about Jesus; she threw in a little religious talk as she went along but not too much.  She knew that her mom was watching down over her.  She took her mother to Mexico in the year before she died and they met an older man, younger than her mother but not by much, while they were there and Julie married him within six months of their return to the U.S.  He lived in Illinois and she moved there to be with him.  She welcomed the sex, found older men attractive, but found out that he was a liar and dishonest so she left him before a year was up. His fishing boat was still parked outside her home and he wouldn’t come pick it up even though she’d called him and written to him about it.  She wanted to sell it but the title was still in his name so she didn’t know what to do.    

              Walter was still thinking that she was beautiful but started smiling to himself, as she talked, and thought, “I love life.  The Universe makes things so interesting!”

              She then explained to Walter, somewhat hesitantly, how her neighbor is a sixty-five year old black man who was caring for his daughter’s two-year-old child while his daughter was in jail.  Julie had fallen in love with the child and, then, with the grandfather and had confessed to him and they had become lovers but she just found out he was cheating on her and she didn’t know what to do.

              Walter said, “Sixty-five?” 

              And “cheating on her?” was his thought.

              “I like older men.  They’re wise and nice,” was her response. 

              Julie went on to tell him how between marriages she met this guy, another black man, in this very bar and they became lovers.  He moved in with her and things were fine until, one night, he kind of had a psychotic break and started trashing her place, breaking the furniture; he threw her on the bed and raped her, breaking her ribs in the process.  From their conversations, she knew that he was wanted in Minnesota so she turned him in and got him arrested and he was doing time there.   He kept calling her, from prison, even though she got a restraining order against him.  He was to get out in six days and she was worried that he’d come back for her.

              Walter started to understand their meeting. 

              “How old is he?”

              “He’s younger, about your age,” she said.

              “Are you still afraid of him?” asked Walter.

              “Yes,” she kind of whispered.

              “Do you own a gun?” from Walter.

              “Not anymore,” was her response, “I used to keep one around the house but he found it and started shooting things, just to see if he could hit them, so I got rid of it.”

              “What kind of things would he shoot?” asked Walter.

              “Birds, bottles, a cat, anything that got left around in the yard.”

              They were hungry so they waved down the barmaid and ordered from the menu, which was tucked behind the napkin holder on their table.  They agreed to split the Garden Quesadilla; it sounded good:  Grilled Red Onions, Succulent Sundried Tomatoes, Fresh Spinach and Portabella Mushrooms, all tucked into a Flour Tortilla with a Special Herbed Goat Cheese Spread and side of House Salsa.  They could add meat but she was happy without it and Walter preferred not to eat anything that once had a face; he also preferred corn tortillas but they were hard to come by in restaurants.  They each ordered another beer, changing to the Righteous Ale, dry-hopped with herbal and citrus hops, for Julie and the Sweet Action, which was touted as being hard to define, for Walter.  He was thinking how she could be his sweet action but he was getting the sense that she wanted another kind of action from him.

              When the food came, things went silent.  As they’d done with their first beers, they each took a taste of the other’s then agreed that the Tiger was the one they liked best.  They talked about leaving so she got up to pee and a wave of fresh air followed her.  Walter took a look around the place and thought he saw a familiar face on a person just before he walked out of the front door but couldn’t be sure.  Julie came back and, just after she did, a girl in her early twenties walked up to her and asked her if she’d play a game of shuffleboard with her. 

              Julie smiled and turned to Walter and asked, “Do you mind?”

              “Go right ahead,” he answered with his own smile.

              While she was playing, Walter got up and went to the bar to pay the tab and talk with the bartender and another patron until she finished. 

              About a half-hour later Julie walked up to him, took his hand, and told him, “This happens all the time.”

              Out front, they kissed. 

              She said, “This was nice,” and then, “What do you think I should do about my problem?”

              Walter thought, “Which one?” but said, “Let me think about it.”

              She said, so quiet that he almost couldn’t hear it, “I prefer the cock to the puss,” and then walked off to her car.

              Watching her walk away, he smiled and thought how perfect life was.

              “This… Here… Now – Breathe In… Breath Out,” Walter practiced.

              He turned around, headed the few feet back to his car, when there was that flash of light, again, the one he’d seen through the window in the bar.  There was nothing he could see to assign the light to.  He was putting the key into the lock on the car door when he heard something behind him.  He turned the key, unlocking the door, and then pulled the key back out and held it between his index and middle finger on his right hand, key fob inside his fist, key shank pointing out like a knife, and then he turned around.

              “Hey Friend,” said the wiry guy who had just stepped off of the curb and into the street, coming from the opposite side. 

              He was smaller than Walter but looked to be all muscle, kind of greasy, with hair too long and uncut, a Detroit Tigers jacket on, left hand out and reaching towards Walter, right hand still in his pocket, unblemished white Nikes on his feet.

              “What’s up Sport?” asked Walter, thinking the name fit.

              “How you doing?” came the response, the man still approaching, walking faster.

              Walter started to move, turning slightly, reaching for the handle on his car.

              “No, hey, no.  How you doing?” said Sport, moving faster, not yet running but within three steps from Walter.

              There was that flash again. The guy was moving his hand in his pocket.    Walter saw the butt of something extending just past Sport’s right hand as it started out of the pocket, but couldn’t tell if it was part of a knife or a gun.  Whatever was in the pocket got stuck on the fabric. The delay was just for a second but that was all Walter needed. As Sport took one more step towards him, Walter also took a quick forward step, closing the gap and bringing him within combat range; he swung his left hand wide and around and, with an open palm, slapped the guy’s right ear, knocking the attached head sideways and bursting the eardrum.  As the shock of that took effect and Sport stopped his attack, Walter pulled back his left hand, as if he were swimming, pushing his body forward in the process, pivoting on his feet and legs, shifting his body weight, and struck the lump, or laryngeal prominence, at the front of Sport’s neck, crushing his vocal folds, injuring his laryngeal nerve, triggering the closure of his trachea, and dumping him backwards onto his butt in the middle of Michigan Street.

 

                  “The key to survival in combat is violence without hesitation; total, no holding back, and then, if wounded, it’s presence of mind rather than slipping into shock,” Walter remembered the instructor saying, a former pro-football player, standing in the depression in the middle of the Georgia woods, bare chested, K-bar strapped to his waste, holding a chicken above him, drinking the blood as it pumped out, having just bitten its head off.

 

              Walter turned and saw Jewel’s car just turning the corner two blocks away.  A thin, hard rain was just beginning to fall, carrying on from where it had left off the night before.  He got in his car and drove the mile to Mara’s house in the time it took Sport to suffocate.

 

 

Chapter 12 – Common World

Alex, “If she was dead, I would be crying.”

You have to be alert when you ride an elephant, you can do a lot of damage if you screw up. Alertness takes energy, it activates a person and it tires one out. Awareness, on the other hand, is something one falls into and it can both relax and rejuvenate the person. Driving during the day, it was easy to hit or rub curbs with the rear tires of the bus. The drivers said that the curbs absorbed heat from the sun and would expand at the same time that the air within the tires heated and expanded, and the result was more rubs and curbs happening in the day than early in the morning or later in the night.

That day, it was foggy out.

“Froggy,” he remembered thinking and imagined a bunch of tiny amphibs in the air. The day was cool and the expansion excuse wouldn’t fly if he rubbed.

It was really a matter of professionalism; the better drivers made clean turns. Walter made a right turn around a sharp corner and came up just short of a car stopped at the signal light on the street he was turning on to. He needed her to back up so he could complete the turn. The buses don’t back unless it’s an emergency and the one time Walter had to, a passenger had hopped off to make sure it was clear behind him. The woman at the wheel of the car looked to be reading a text message on her phone while the few cars behind her had already backed up, making room for the bus, and the signal light turned green before she finally looked up. From his vantage point above her, Walter saw how startled she was, this massive thing sitting just outside her windshield. After her initial shock, she gave him the old Stink Eye, turned to her right and drove on by. Walter kept his poker face on but was laughing inside. He completed his turn and remembered to “beware of the flare” as he did so, not wanting to sideswipe any cars as his rear swung out.

A few blocks later, he pulled to a stop and picked up a pretty, young mother with her kids in tow. She had a wholesome look about her but, obviously, wasn’t wearing a bra and the T-shirt she had on was imprinted with a goofy cat with its eyes positioned over her erect nipples. It took Walter an instant to realize he was staring but the way she smiled suggested her plan was working. She rode the bus for twenty blocks before she and her kids got off but not before she provoked him further.

She looked at him that way, you know, whether you’re male or female you understand; the way that say’s she wants you, and then she called his name, “Bus Driver.”

He got a chuckle out of that.

That day, driving home, Walter’s mind brought up traces of his trip, with Mara, to Big Sir and Monterey and how sweet it was but, also, how it defined what they were to become.

On that trip she was still sexual, still got wet with anticipation. They had entered the personal sanctuary that was Esalen and showered with others in the shower that was perched on the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean and then moved to the stone tubs filled with hot spring water that flowed from the mountains behind. That first evening, there were several other bathers in the tubs but Walter and Mara experimented, moving into a hot stone bath until heated and relaxed and then cooling in the claw foot bathtubs before moving to a new hot bath and so on, repeating the process until they were pleasantly exhausted. Some of the other bathers were silent while others engaged in mild conversation.

“I just don’t understand what women want!” said a man who looked to be in his seventies. He was naked amid five or six naked others, near him in age, both men and women.

As the hot water cooled and flowed out of the tubs, they would pull the large wooden stoppers from the rock channel behind them and refill the tubs with 119-degree water. Looking out towards the horizon of the ocean, they could see the spouts of gray whales as they migrated north, back to their breeding grounds. Below them, sea otters floated on their backs in the waves and cracked open the shells of mollusks they’d retrieved from the ocean floor.

He was remembering how Mara had turned her back to him and leaned her naked body half way up on the stone ledge to get a better view of the otters below. He sat there, blissful, sweating and at ease while her body rose out of the water. He saw her little shoulders, a strong back with a well-defined spine and just below her waistline, two cute dimples that gave emphasis to the perfect heart-shaped ass below.

It was a long winding uphill path from the baths back to their cabin but the walk was peaceful. The green hillside around them was dotted in some spots and completely covered, in others, with yellow flowers. They could see the white surf crashing against the rocks at the shore.

In the cabin, there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t try or do to please him, to please herself. She stripped her clothes off and laid down on the floor, spread her legs and rolled over, showing her pussy and her ass. She did a headstand letting her large milky breasts fall towards her face. She gave him a flirty look, humor in her eyes that made him smile then. Remembering, he was smiling now. They made love. Afterwards, she drank a full bottle of wine taken from the case she’d picked up at Trader Joe’s in Monterey.

“I see a rabbit,” she said, looking up at the patterns in the knots and grain of the wooden ceiling above them.

“There’s a butterfly,” he said, pointing with his finger.

“Don’t live in the past,” he told himself, that day driving the bus.

That afternoon, after his workday was done, he had headed out in her back yard to look for her. Around him, the air had been close as he walked out to find her in her garden, surrounded by flowering plants in various stages of coming and going. She was clipping the flowered heads from the top of the basil plants growing in her raised beds.

It had been another perfect time of year. The purple tulips, pink, fuscia and white peonies, and pink and white bleeding hearts had passed their prime and were fading while the flowers of the lilac bush were completely gone, leaving the healthy green bush behind. Emerging from the lavender and green base of Russian Sage, abundant small red roses were climbing over the white bricks at the back of the garage, leveraging off of the trellis and reaching for the roof gutter.

She sat back, when she saw him, and he moved towards her. As he approached, first one and then a second Black Swallowtail butterfly landed on her shoulder and back. She didn’t seem to notice their arrival but, at seeing this, Walter had smiled inside. Ringo, their big grey Maine Coon, the one he’d given her to keep her from loneliness before he moved in, left her side and ran up to him for some head rubs.

“Hello Ringo Bear!” he had said, “How you doing Dog Hunter?”

“Hello,” said the big cat, with a smile in his eyes. Of the four cats living there, he was the only one who spoke English.

Walter remembered how things seemed almost unreal and how he quickly lost and then regained his balance looking at her, seeing her form framed by a kaleidoscope of colors and natural beauty, the tall yellow sunflowers rising above and behind her, the yellow and orange Nasturtiums spilling over the garden-bed frame at her side, white and purple Clematis dressing the wooden fence, fading clusters of Valerian and Honeysuckle, Foxglove, purple Allium and bright Firecracker Begonia, Hibiscus, and purple and white Iris, chartreuse Kiwi Vine in an array.

Shakti, her white and gray cat, the quiet killer, was resting on a branch at human eyelevel in the corkscrew willow, legs and paws hanging in the air below her, positioned in a spot where she could watch over Mara. Zoë, the nervous Tortie with beautiful camouflaged fir, lay on a cushion in a patio chair, trying to decide whether to move or sleep.

“Hey ZoZo” he had said, “You being good?”

She had a few trust issues that made her mean. Shiva would be inside sleeping, he knew, saving his energy until the darkness of night came. Walter had leaned down and given Mara a kiss.

“How was your day?” she had asked.

“So, so. I had a rolling incident. A fight broke out while I was driving and they stayed at it for about three blocks until we reached the next stop,” he reported.

She had just smiled at that.

“Want some food?” he’d asked.

“Sure.”

“You stay here and I’ll make us something to eat and meet you on the patio,” suggested Walter.

He had gone inside, through the breezeway and into the kitchen. He pulled the container out of the refrigerator and poured them each a bowl of gazpacho that she’d recently made from the harvest of her garden: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro and cucumbers; olive oil and vinegar from the market. He toasted two pieces of six-grain bread from their favorite bakery, brushed on some olive oil, poured two glasses of cool filtered water, placed everything on a tray and walked back out to the patio and parceled out the food, placing it on the table between the chairs.

“Hey! It’s ready,” he’d yelled.

She’d come over, ducking under the hanging branches of the willow, being followed by Ringo. Zoë jumped off her chair and gave it to Walter. Shakti remained in the tree, unmoved except for the turn of her head so that she could watch the two of them. They sat and talked and watched as the Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrows and Nuthatches came and went from the feeders and sunflowers. Shakti watched the birds with indifference. Zoë made an involuntary chirping sound and speed walked, at a crouch, nearer to the feeders. Their backyard revelry ended as the sky darkened and it began to rain, moving both humans and Gatos inside.

Around her house, Mara had statutes of the Buddha, Angels, The Virgin Mary and Jesus, Ganesha, Sara Swati and Murugan. She worshiped no idols but she liked the looks of those images. She had silk tapestries, paintings and prints hanging from the walls or leaned against them and resting on the floors. Most of these works were amazing to him, having been done by old friends, her sister Jade, or by Mara herself. Among the finest etchings were ones done by her friend, Karen Sharon McNaren, who’d also been abused as a child, and as a young adult had abandoned her home, given away all of her possessions and moved far away where she took up the life of a prostitute. One hall was lined with black and white nude photos of Mara and Lizzy near water, faces turned and obscured. Beyond those prints, there were few photos, other than some small, framed pictures of Papaji, Gangaji, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and Adyashanti. When Walter had first met her, he thought these were pictures of her family and boyfriend and in a certain way they were. She did have one picture taken of her mother at an early age, framed and standing on the mantle of her fireplace right next to the urn that held Mara’s share of her ashes. Mara had a room at the back of her house, across the hall from her bedroom, where she kept things. Walter knew that’s where she kept her stash of booze, some paperwork, her wireless printer, and some clothes but he also figured that’s where she kept some of her secrets. As their relationship had gone along, and as Walter’s spirit had started to come back, she would frequently disappear into that room and come out with a book in hand.

“Here, you should read this,” she’d say.

He never questioned her. He’d take the book and, without a single exception, he’d find the answers to the questions his mind was asking, clearly spelled out in the book. Over the course of the time that he knew her, she had always given him the right book at the right time, never one out of sequence. There was, as the saying goes, a method to her madness. Had she given him too advanced a book too early, he might have given up, confused, frustrated or bored. Walter had devoured each book and followed every pointer she had given him and often he’d go to her in a state of excitement to thank her and tell her what he’d learned.

“Oh, that was just perfect! I feel like such a child. This stuff’s been around for thousands of years and I’m, just now, discovering it,” spewed Walter, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she’d say.

Walter would start talking, babbling about what he thought he’d just learned from the book she’d given him, but she’d stop him with a simple line.

“It’s all bullshit,” she’d say, and she wouldn’t talk any further.

There were times when she’d be sitting in her chair, drunk, working on some jewelry perhaps, and Walter would be across the room, talking about his depression or his latest crisis of faith and she would blurt out a single line of wisdom that would seem so clear that he’d stop and be silent and wonder what had just happened. She was the most messed up person that he’d ever known, in pain, suffering, making poor choices, unable to make decisions, attached, insecure, suicidal, and yet the wisest person he’d ever known. Walter couldn’t tell if she was ill or just messed up from the alcohol and meds. He couldn’t tell if she needed help, or if she was dancing at the edge of the Void and should be left alone to awaken.

He remembers how, the night before, he had awakened to find her gone from the bed, which wasn’t unusual except that she usually returned within a few minutes, taking that time to sit in the dark in her chair outside on her patio, smoking a cigarette with her cats milling around her. She’d usually finish the smoke, come back in locking the doors behind her, pee, gargle some mouthwash, and then come back to bed. That night, when she wasn’t back in twenty minutes, Walter got up to look for her and found her standing in the nude, bent over the broken frame and glass of a picture she had leaned against the wall in the breezeway. Her motions were stiff and abbreviated and her speech was slurred, as if she’d had a stroke. He noticed no cuts or blood on her skin and gently took her arm and talked to her calmly, soothing her until he could get her back into bed. After she’d fallen asleep, he’d returned to the breezeway to clean up the mess. He had made a promise to her, all those years ago, but worried now that in keeping his promise it might cost her life.

Back when they were still lovers, she had pleaded, “Please, don’t ever let them commit me.”

“I won’t,” he solemnly replied after a moment of thought that brought the realization of what his commitment meant.

Those years later, as he was cleaning up the broken glass he realized he hadn’t fully understood what his promise would mean. On the way back in through the kitchen, as he dumped the glass shards in the garbage can, he knew that he needed to make some notes. He found one of her pens; all of her pens were made to look like flowers, she used clothespins with sunflowers attached to seal food packages, and a note pad and wrote down some thoughts that he’d discuss over the phone with Jade as soon as he could.

It was a few weeks later, when he was exhausted and near his breaking point, that they convinced her to check into a rehab facility to try to get her meds regulated and quit the booze. Walter had talked with Jade and they’d agreed on a strategy to persuade her to take this step and it had worked, each of them having encouraging and supportive conversations with her, appealing to the part of her that still saw the sun and still felt joy at being alive and engaged. Mara made it through ten of the fourteen days the program required before checking herself out against medical advice. She tried again in a year or so. Each time Walter was encouraged and hoped for the best. Each time she started back on her path, hiding the bottles and limiting her drinking until the alcohol took control once again.

Jade had screamed at him once after one of Mara’s relapses, “You told me she was doing okay! You lied to me!”

Perhaps he had. Perhaps he had lied to himself also.

On the days when Mara would feel well, when she was sober and not overmedicated, they would talk.

“Are you glad you’re alive?” Walter would ask.

“Yes, when I feel like this,” she’d say.

Time would pass and she would always come back to the point of again thinking of killing herself. She did research on the Internet. She ordered books that gave clear instructions of the best way to do it. She dwelled on it. Sometimes, she’d be sitting in her chair across the room from Walter and she would lift her head and reach her hand up and with one finger representing a knife, she’d draw it across her throat.

Mara’s brother, Sam, couldn’t talk about it. Walter didn’t know if he was too emotional or if he just didn’t care. Sam would come over to Mara’s place to borrow some peat moss, or drop off some panties that didn’t fit his girlfriend, or to see the cats but he’d hardly talk to his sister and would seldom, if ever, ask her how she was doing. Walter talked over the phone with Jade about it until Jade’s marriage fell apart and she felt like he was taking advantage of her in her time of weakness and, again, perhaps he was. He needed someone to talk to, someone to love him since he didn’t know enough to love himself. He walked around, often trembling, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Chapter 11 – Family

My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.
Clarence B. Kelland
Mother sits, like Buddha, at the center of our universe. Ed

It was almost dark. He was running, over six miles into it now, just under four more to go. His route was smooth, not used much, tree covered and almost perfect for his plan. He had to be to his extraction point by dark and he had just over a half-hour to make it. He had broken down his rifle and stowed it in his backpack and had his pistol in a side pouch so that he could easily pull it if he needed to, if someone came along, which would be just his or her bad luck. He only killed when it was indicated, to quote Jed, but he thought, “Survival is the second law.”
He had on running clothes so that if anyone saw him from a distance they wouldn’t assume that anything untoward was happening. It was the being seen up close that he couldn’t abide, having his face remembered.
The shot had been perfect, just one and all that was needed.
“Dust to dust,” he said, as he’d pulled the trigger.
This run was his second way out, the first having been blocked by police, unexpectedly arriving more quickly that predicted. He always planned multiple escape routes.
The target had been selected by The Committee, and sent to him in the usual way. The details, as usual, were left out. He didn’t question their choice; he just did that which he had agreed to do those many years ago. It was up to him to fill in the details of the how.
“Another criminal gone; another liar; another bastard,” he rationalized.
It would make the news. That was part of The Committee’s objective. They knew that, sooner or later, the legal criminals would get the message. What The Committee didn’t know was that there were the beginnings of a crack in their mechanism, one that would prove to be their undoing.
Walter had talents and killing without being found out was one of them.
His brothers had other talents and stayed where they felt the safest, surrounded by the tribe they were born into.
Walter’s older brother was groomed to be a physician but, interrupted by the war, he had dropped out of school long enough to give the government time to draft him, which they didn’t, and so he’d returned to school. That time around, he studied what he wanted to study, rather than what his parents wanted him to, and he became a lawman. He worked for the Sheriff’s Department, in the county in which he was raised, and excelled at seeing things in black and white. His first day on the job, he was called to the scene of a suicide where a man had climbed into his beater pickup truck, placed the barrel of his shotgun into his mouth, and blown his brains out, distraught over his failed marriage and his failing finances. After a hundred year rain and subsequent flash flood killed 143 people in the Big Thompson Canyon, he worked the body-bagging detail, pulling bodies off of fence posts and out from under rocks. He progressed quickly up the ladder to the position of Undersheriff and it seemed that he had a bright future and would one day run for Sheriff, in the process making his parents happy and proud. He fell in love with a police groupie, and took her a bouquet of roses while she was in the hospital being treated for STD’s gifted to her from other officers.
“I love you. Will you marry me?” he had asked.
“I love you, too. Yes, yes, yes!” She had consented.
They married shortly thereafter and moved to a different county to begin their new life together. Their first child died innocent in her sleep, perhaps not wanting to face what lie ahead, and their second daughter, undamaged at the core, was left parentless after her parents had a little disagreement and her father killed her mother with a shime-waza held a little too long. Walter’s PPK was found at the scene of the killing but no one ever suggested that he had anything to do with the death.
“The Bitch,” was about all that his brother ever said on the subject.
“His brain wasn’t fully formed yet,” is what Walter liked to think.
In prison he became an advocate for his prison mates and a strong critic of the corruption and ineptitude of the commercial prison system, as it become more and more obvious that they failed at reform but excelled at profits derived from warehousing inmates. Serving four-and-a-half years of a twelve year sentence turned out to be less costly than the divorce would have been but, after violating parole by fleeing the state and then using the finger-in-the-pocket technique to recover the stolen belongings of a friend, he was captured and convicted of armed robbery and sent back for another four years.
“He was conditioned by the system,” was how Walter credited him that time.
When his older brother’s daughter was left without parents, his younger brother and his wife, whom he had married the year after her abortion and the year of her high school graduation, applied for guardianship. They were on the verge of being approved when it was made known that the younger brother had a second family living in a town an hour north. His primary marriage survived but the guardianship failed and their niece was shipped off to live with her maternal grandparents; his younger brother’s second family was never heard from again.
“Not fully formed,” thought Walter.
Walter’s younger brother started working as a laborer for a residential builder when he was sixteen. After graduating from high school, he went to college for part of one day but walked out of a lecture hall, embarrassed after having been called upon to speak and not being able to find his tongue. He returned to the building company and never left, finding his tongue and becoming a millionaire in the process.
The construction firm grew and became one of the largest builders of tract homes and subdivisions in the country with its profits being built, partly, on a well-practiced game of bunko where low quality components were switched for the high quality and higher priced ones that were on exhibit in the spec-homes and in the plans that the clients paid for. The cheaper parts ended up being buried in, behind, and below the floors, walls, and foundations of the completed homes, seldom being discovered. Ten percent here and ten percent there was all it took.
“Everybody, in the business, does it,” he had said, to Walter, “We couldn’t survive if we didn’t do it.”
The ruse helped to ensure that his younger brother worked seven days a week and never retired for fear of someone outside the small inner circle discovering the swindle.
“Conditioned by his workplace,” allowed Walter.
Walter often wondered which qualities he and his brothers had willingly accepted or unwittingly inherited from their father. He was a handsome and slightly spoiled man, having been the favored child. I guess it could be said that he was ambitious, to boot, and those ambitions were more than financial. He had been dating one of Walter’s mother’s four sisters and was reported to be in pursuit of yet another sister at the time that Walter’s mother, then sixteen, became pregnant by him.
I know, I know, “Stupid young kids, their brains weren’t even fully formed yet.”
They married, and it wasn’t until years later that his father said, “I’m glad I didn’t marry a pretty woman.”
That statement must have been one of the reasons that Walter’s mother had run off with the plastic surgeon who altered her image and did her breast augmentation. The surgeon, I suppose, must have been pleased with his work and Walter’s mother, perhaps, was flattered that a doctor would want her; or, since the family held the opinion that all professionals were either crooks or quacks, she might have done it just to twist the knife that she’d thrust into Walter’s father’s side. The affair lasted one week and was ended when his Dad heartily professed his love for her and apologized for whatever personal offenses he had committed. Walter’s mother, he knew, was good at hiding the truth, even from herself, but he could imagine that enough honesty might have slipped through her mask to scare the surgeon into being content with the outcome.
“Your Mom was offended when he kept pressing her to try anal sex,” his older brother’s wife had said, long before her choking death.
“He agreed to stop asking her to try it and, also, promised to stop seeing the prostitutes in Denver,” she had added.
The daughter-in-law, whatever her faults, had become a confidant to their Mother.
Walter’s mother was a gun toting, government protesting, Survivalist. She saw chemical mind-control agents being applied to the citizenry in the form of aircraft contrails. She was aware that the CIA was infiltrating the neighborhood. With her friends she plotted how to fortify and then barricade off the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 when the time came and, “Oh, it will come.”
She never went to a doctor or a dentist, not trusting or believing in them. She walked every day and was tagged to live a long life. She loved the family from which she came and staunchly believed in her sons and their actions. She told anyone, who asked, that she was part Cherokee while another sister said she was Osage, a brother said he was Mohawk, and yet another relative said there was no Native blood in the family at all. The older she got, though, the more she came to look like the thing she claimed to be; maybe it was the power of belief, or maybe it was true.
One of her older sisters, the one her husband, Walter’s father, was dating when he got her pregnant, was his mother’s mother’s favorite. His mother’s mother would buy new dresses for that sister but make her store them at a neighbors where she would go to change clothes on her way to and from school, not wanting to make the other sister jealous.
His mother said she had a good childhood, growing up on the farm with her seven siblings and dreaming about Sheiks with swords coming for her.
“Wally, you have such cute legs!” is what Walter remembered her frequently saying to him in his youth, just before she’d disappear while sitting there on her chair, right in front of his eyes, no longer hearing or seeing her middle son.
On their regular drives through the western prairie, whenever she would see an abandoned and tumbling down shack, she’d point it out to the family, pause to look and make sure he was paying attention, and then say, “There’s where Wally’s going to live.”
She was a great cook, who always berated her own abilities. She had made corn chowder, tuna puffs, and triple chocolate cake for Walter, and had the food spread on the table, waiting, when he arrived at her door for a visit.
“Hi Mom.”
“Wally! I’m so glad you’re home!”
Hugs and kisses.
“I made you some food but you probably won’t like it,” she had said, as she led him to the table.
She didn’t believe in the Church but had found Jesus and became a Born Again Christian and knew that her beliefs were the true beliefs and that everyone who wasn’t saved would go to Hell.
“I would choose Jesus over you,” she had said to Walter when he questioned her about her beliefs while they ate the chowder.
One of Walter’s earliest memories was of his mother rolling around on their kitchen floor, entangled with one of the single mothers who rented from them.
“We were arguing over the use of the clothesline,” his Mom had explained.
The day that Walter’s mother slipped her husband the morphine tablets she stood one up on his father, from a killing standpoint, but still trailed her oldest son by one; they all fell far behind Walter, if anyone was keeping track, but by that time Walter had stopped counting.
Walter wondered, but never asked his mother, if she knew what he had done at his father’s bidding or if that knowledge had died with him.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the brains behind the whole operation,” he said to himself one day, sipping a cold Fat Tire beer, sitting outside of Coopersmith’s.
His father had talked to him only once in words directly intended to educate and guide him but those words had been too few and too meaningless to have any impact on Walter’s outcome. His father had told the story of how he’d felt social pressure to drink beer before the legal age but had deceived the people putting pressure on him by secretly pouring the liquid on the ground rather than drinking it. He remembers the story of his father being pressured to hunt deer and how his shot hadn’t killed the doe and how the brown eyes had looked at him when he finished the job with his knife. He remembers the advice about being certain, and careful, if he became involved with a girl. There it was: One afternoon drive in his dad’s truck, one hour, three stories, and thirty-some years ago. How his father did have impact on his son was through his actions and by what he said tangentially.
“You were left by the milkman,” his Dad frequently quipped, smiling as he said it.
“Was that hint?” Walter sometimes thought, “What’s real?”
What sins, or crimes, if you prefer, Walter’s father had committed were not all known to him but some of them were.
There were the obvious, common ones, which were known because he had been caught; like speeding tickets, building code violations, and tax evasion. And then there were ones you just had to form your own opinion about.
Walter’s father, the son of merchant, had followed in his father’s footsteps and owned a musical instrument store in the early days of the marriage to Walter’s mother. Walter didn’t know if his father’s father had laid the path that his family followed so it was, perhaps, a slight divergence from his life’s teachings when, one evening while Dad and Mom were at a movie, some rags which had been tossed in a corner, spontaneously combusted and burned the music store to the ground. With the insurance proceeds, his father had barely been able to purchase a filling station with a convenience store, a single-family house, and a 24-unit apartment building.
When Walter was a young boy, at the age of seven, his family sold the filling station, store, and apartments and moved to the home he loved. From then until the day after his high school graduation, he lived in the foothills woodlands and shrublands of the northeastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, in a house nestled on a couple of acres of land that backed up to the Roosevelt National Forest. Out of his bedroom window, he could hear the rushing waters of the Cache la Poudre River, when it wasn’t frozen over, and the sound the wind made as it blew through the Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine, the Quaking Aspen, Narrowleaf Cottonwood and Peachleaf Willow. He was born with a stutter, easily shy and with a fear of the dark. By the time Walter was in his mid-teens, he had been schooled out of his stuttering, had walked alone bare-handed and bare-chested out into the midnight darkness of the wilderness, challenging the darkness and conquering his fear, but still tended towards shyness. Walter had ridden bulls in rodeos, skydived, camped out in the wilderness for extended periods on his own, learned to shoot, eaten rattlesnake that he’d killed with a stick and his bare hands, and become an accomplished and recognized athlete.
When the weather was inviting, friends of his parents would gather for barbecues, beer or wine, and sit around the plank table behind the house and talk. The men’s talk would inevitably lead to the corruption of politicians and the government, the crookedness and deceit of businessmen, especially professionals, the ruining of the country, and the unfairness of life. All of this was said in the face of knowing that most of the men sitting around the table were guilty of the same offenses that were being protested so, perhaps, it was the magnitude of the accomplishment that made them take exception to the acts by others.
When the conversation around the picnic table eventually turned to, “We should hire an assassin to take out those people that we know are crooked but who are too well connected to get punished,” and then to, “Why don’t we just train someone?” just as Walter was walking by, all heads turned towards him.
Walter heard what was said, and he saw the smiles aimed at him, but he never, really, thought it through; he just wanted to be accepted. Perhaps without either one of them consciously knowing it, his father had passed on his way of living to his son, who had willingly received it.
All those years later, when I knew him, Walter was just starting to try to understand whether he had lived his life the way he had in an attempt to pay homage to his father and earn his love or if he had been paying dues to society to atone for his father’s sins. Either way, he knew that he had not been living his life; rather, he had been living the life that his father wanted for him.
Walter knew that what happened in the first seven years of his life hadn’t, necessarily, determined what had happened in the rest of his life but he also knew that in the first seven years his mold was cast, in the second seven years it had hardened, and by the end of the third seven years, his form was pretty much set. He was well beyond the age of twenty-one, over twice that age, by the time he started to feel that he wasn’t living an authentic life. He remembered all the sins that he had committed but he felt neither guilt nor pride in the work he’d done at The Committee’s bidding. What he did feel was tired and angry; tired of living a life that had been programmed into him, and angry at what had been done to the child that he had once been. His anger was aimed at himself as much as it was at anyone else. Walter wondered why people have to learn obliquely, through metaphors and parables and then why, in his case, it was taking so long.
What he couldn’t yet admit was that he was seeking unconditional acceptance and, since he hadn’t received it from his parents, he had been seeking it from others. What he didn’t understand was that he could only receive it from himself.

Chapter 10 – Another Day

Even Holiness is removed from us. A Heaven up there with God in it.
Peter Matthiessen

Walter’s thoughts went back to last fall, to his weekend. He hadn’t showered in two days, was dressed in black polar-fleece: Top; pants; socks, and wearing his berks. He hadn’t shaved since he got sick the week before so he imagined he looked a lot like a stress doll with quarter-inch hairs all over the globe.

He ran six miles Sunday, five on Monday and could tell something was up. It had been a week. He stopped going to hot yoga. His left nostril was about cracked through in the usual place. He was blowing blood whenever he cleared his sinuses. He couldn’t remember if they say you’re not supposed to run when it hits you below the neck or above so he just didn’t run. He couldn’t remember if you feed a cold and starve a fever but he was hungry. He’d probably put on five pounds. He didn’t get sick often but, when he did, it usually laid him out like that.

When he got like that, he usually slept in his room, the one he read and did his journaling in. There was a nice futon in there and it wasn’t far to the floor if he needed to roll off. Sometimes he slept in there when he needed to get to the deep realms or when Mara really needed her rest. She didn’t cuddle and she wasn’t the type to spoon, so when they slept together he tended to reach out an arm and touch her somewhere; on the shoulder, back, butt…like a cat will do sometimes when it curls up next to you, only he did it to let her know that she wasn’t alone, and to make sure she was still breathing; who knows why a cat does it. Often, when he touched her, she would wake up and start drinking, or wandering, and that’s what kept him from sleeping.

When he slept in his room, he could tell when she got up because she would usually turn on the hall light. If she was up for good she’d close the pocket door to his room but he could still hear the sound when she ground the coffee beans in the kitchen. She got up when it was too dark to see, that morning. He’d been in hotels when they would slip the bill under the door in the early, early hours. He’d hear the sound but it wouldn’t be enough to wake him but, in his sleep, he knew what it meant. There’s a certain closure to it, wrapping up the final cost. Mara slipped something under his door right after she got up that day. It made him smile in his sleep. He figured maybe she was slipping him the bill for staying at her place.

“I wouldn’t blame her,” he thought.

The day before, he’d read a story about a long-troubled guy who seemed to finally have gotten it together. He was repairing his life, tying up loose ends, seemingly really happy the day before he hanged himself. Walter got up with the natural light and opened the envelope. She was telling him how much she loved him, how happy she was that he was in her life, how she hoped it was going to be forever, apologizing for having screwed up but reminding him that he said things will always work out. He could hear her moving about in the basement.

He grabbed his mug and filled it with black coffee; it was good and cut through the crud in his throat. She used free trade organic French roast, and had a precise water-to-bean formula. She would buy the beans by the 5 lb. bag from Harvest Health over on Eastern, saving 10% on the price that way. He trundled down the stairs to her basement, sometimes moaning to himself, sometimes grunting quietly — his body had a hard youth. She was working through her mess–the visible one; rearranging the furniture, sorting through her jewelry-making supplies, hanging the Buddhist tapestries. She had just finished painting the walls turquoise to remind her of the Caribbean. Things were starting to look nice. They held hands.

She said, “You’re cold!” and he was.

It was mid-November in Michigan, 40° outside and she kept the heat off inside. It was her house. He was cold but he didn’t really mind; by that time he didn’t have many preferences left. She hated the cold and the gray and she particularly hated holing-up as if in a cave for the winter. The winter before they had lived in Mexico where it was hot and blue. She had money squirreled away that she could use to pay for heat but he supposed that was, in part, how she did it, the squirreling away part. Later, she’d sit in her leather chair near the bay window, the closest spot to the sun, and complain about the cold. He’d point out what he thought was obvious.

She’d tell him, “You can turn the heat on if you want.”

If he did, the last thing she’d ask before going to bed was if he’d turned it back off.

On the Ping-Pong table there was a cobalt glass that was waning half empty. He asked her if it was tea.

She said, “No. It’s my addiction.”

“It’s only one of them,” he thought.

He remembered all the grief he gave her in Mexico, all the frustration and anger he felt and how it did nothing but blemish the experience and the memory.

She’d found a greeting card her mother had sent her and asked if she could read to him. The card was beautiful. The words were beautiful. It didn’t correlate with the emotionally violent upbringing she told him she had. She sat on the stairs, finished with her mother’s words. She started talking about her sister, Jade, who worked in a high-up creative position with a major greeting card company.

Mara said, “Jade was asking herself why she works so hard for something as simple as greeting cards.”

Jade has survived more than most in life.

He headed to his bathroom; he used the one in the basement, blew some snot and blood, and looked in the mirror. In addition to the whiskers and cracked nose, he remembers that he had a couple of pimples going.

“I really look like a bad stress doll,” he had thought.

Mara called out, “Would you split an omelet from Gaia?”

She phoned and ordered the special of the day; everything was vegetarian from Gaia, whole-wheat toast, and a side of pan-fried potatoes with onions.

“It’ll be ready in ten,” she had said.

No time to clean up “Oh well.”

Cherry Street was packed with cars, so was Diamond and the parking lot. He parked in back by the YOU WILL BE TOWED sign and slipped in through the employee’s door. Rick, the owner and cook, knew him. Rick looked about as pissed off as Walter felt, not at anything in particular, just at the deception, the joke.

They said, “Hi.”

The food wasn’t quite ready so Walter leaned up against the wall and watched the activity: Customers paying, same cute waitress no longer pregnant, new waitress asked what he wanted and took his money. He asked her where she got her arms; nice biceps, long and lean, blood vessels standing out.

“Rock climbing,” she said.

That’s how he broke his back but he kept it to himself. Rick scooped the potatoes and onions into the take-out tin then turned, and flipped the omelet, slipped it in the tin, added grilled onions, red peppers and mushrooms, a slice of cantaloupe, a strawberry and the toast he waved the butter at. Walter tossed in an organic peanut butter cookie, nodded to Rick, and took off.

Mara and Walter split the omelet, each taking some spuds but leaving most for later, veggies to her, fruit to him, she left the toast in the container, as was her way. He asked her how she was doing. She was being extra sweet that morning but seemed more off-balance, walking sideways a lot, had that tentative affect in her voice.

“I’m doing fine,” she said.

She walked into the kitchen and he could still hear her fill her glass with water and stir in some powdered Gatorade, then she was off to the closet in her bedroom where he could just make out the sound of the vodka bottle hitting the glass as she poured. She usually just got a buzz going early that she could maintain throughout the day, but she was into it full tilt that time. That usually meant that there was something newly stressful going on. She came back and they sat and talked about Jade, about Ingrid, an acquaintance whose birthday was that day, and about the weather. As impassively as he could, he brought up her expressions of regret, her understanding of what got her to that point, and asked her what her priorities were about getting sober. It seemed like he was always trying to connect the dots for her but maybe it was for him.

“I don’t want to talk about this now,” she said.

That was okay with him. She’d talk about it later, he knew. She was good about that. It was getting towards noon.

Mara said, “I’m taking off my pants and going to bed.”

It was not an invitation though it used to be. By that time, she no longer had a libido. He did. He’d learned to put it away though, not solely because of her but because he didn’t really mind. He took pleasure but he didn’t seek it. That was just another part of the conditioning and a little bit of hard wiring. Anyway, she was off to bed and would sleep for a couple of hours. He went to his room to read and write, and then texted Jade to tell her he was sorry that he messed things up between them. A short time later, Mara’s phone rang. She had it set up so that it talked. The phone said it was her lawyer but it kept the message silent so that he couldn’t hear the words. He was going to ask her what was up when she got up from her nap.

“You got a phone call,” Walter told her.

She just looked at him. She didn’t listen to it right off; she walked around it for a while and then was surprised to see that she had a voicemail message. When he met Mara she told him she couldn’t drink. He could but he didn’t mind that she couldn’t, especially considering his previous marriages and relationships. He was even happy and relieved about that limitation. She lied about her smoking by saying she didn’t, when she actually did, but was honest about her drinking. At the start, five years back, a thimble-full of booze would give her a headache and make her sick. At the start, she had body pain so bad that she hardly ever looked him in the eyes because of it; she was always rocking back and forth whenever she sat or lay down. He used to take her shoes and socks off and rub her feet. She’d ask him to push her toes back as far as he could because it felt so good. She’d tell him about her friend who thought they were dating, though they weren’t, and how they’d sit on that couch and give each other foot rubs. She wouldn’t rub Walters.

When Walter met Mara, Lizzy was her best friend and had been for years so he heard the stories of how Lizzy had issues. Lizzy could be ultra-sexual when manic: she once brought home some stranger from a bar and then called the cops and accused him of rape when she crashed the next day. Some banker talked Lizzy into refinancing the house that had been given to her, even though she had a minimal job, and she’d used the money to buy a pale lemon Volkswagen Beetle that her dad subsequently had to sell for dimes on the dollar to get her out of debt. Walter met Lizzy’s dad once. He seemed nice enough, intelligent, caring, and good looking. He made his living as an orthodontist. When Walter met him he was with his second wife, not Lizzy’s mom. Walter took an immediate liking to her, the newer wife. She was of Russian descent, seemed reserved and concerned, maybe about Lizzy. It was a summer’s day and they sat on Lizzy’s porch in East Town and drank iced tea and talked about setting up an insurance trust for her so that when he finally moved on there’d be something set aside to take care of her financially.

He remembered Lizzy sitting away from the conversation, looking at him, watching him, “Judging me,” he thought.

She was pretty or, actually, beautiful. She was dark haired, long and lithe with smooth, pale skin. This was in August of that year. He saw Lizzy twice after that meeting, once outside her Aunt’s condo near Traverse City and once when she was dancing off to the side of the stage during Bliss Fest.

“She thought you were right for Mara,” Ingrid said, speaking of Lizzy.

The part of that story that he didn’t know, when he met them that day, was that her dad had repeatedly had sex her and that they continued to have this complex entanglement. About six weeks after their meeting, her dad died of a heart attack. Walter often thought how much sooner her dad would have passed on had Walter known more of the story.

“Lizzy loved everyone, except herself,” said Mara.

That October, the day after Lizzy said “No,” to life and put the turkey baster bag over her head and filled it with helium, Mara started popping pills to numb herself.

A few weeks later, Walter took her to Mexico to try to heal her and ease her off of the pills. The night before their trip, they’d gone over to the house that her brother shared with her mother, to check her mom’s blood pressure and see how her cold was. The next day, they flew out of River City, through Columbus, and then on to Cancun before dropping down to the Riviera Maya. They stayed ten days and she drank fifty-five margaritas on top of the beer and double bourbons. That seemed to stop the body pain but didn’t stop the pills. While they were there, the staff slipped a note, with a message from her brother Sam, under the door letting them know that her mother had died suddenly. Over a couple of margaritas, they talked about returning early. There wasn’t really anything they could do. Mom had an abdominal aneurism rupture and died in the ER before the medical staff could figure it out.

This is an old story. Nothing I say is new. I know Walter’s experience wasn’t his alone; he was just witnessing life. What happened in childhood, to these people, didn’t concretely determine what happened later on but it did set the trajectory.

Walter told me how it took him two years of working with his therapist to quit strapping on the ankle holster with the Walther PPK. He then shifted to keeping a ball-peen hammer under the driver’s seat of his car just in case he might need it. He no longer dreamed about the telephone poles that, as a child, he could see passing by as he lay forced down on the back seat of the car.

Walter mentioned how his friend Ed had said, “If you walked into a room filled with eleven beautiful women and one ugly one, but the ugly one was crying, you’d pick the ugly one.”

Walter remembered laughing when Ed said that, on one level knowing he was right but not really knowing what it meant. Now he knows.

Ed would understand what Walter meant when he said to me, “They are all crying… and none of them is ugly. “

– Peace, love, and life –

Chapter 9 – Meeting

And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.
Walt Whitman

The annual party for the Union was held in one of the medium sized meeting rooms in the City Hotel that stood on the riverbank in downtown River City. The local had about 250 members but they’d be lucky if half of them showed although the free booze was a draw. Though he wasn’t as social as he once was, Walter was opportunistic and he could imagine a scenario that might work to his advantage, at this gathering, so he planned on attending. He had finished his workout at the YMCA, just across the river from the hotel, and had driven the few blocks over and parked on the street; it was after hours so he didn’t need to put any coins in the meter. He was dressed in business casual and felt comfortable and relaxed after his workout. As he got out of his car and rounded the back-end of his Honda and stepped up on the sidewalk, a dole of Rock Doves, startled, flew up. He stepped around the bird shit, passed by a couple of spindly elm trees the city had planted along the roadside, and made his way under the theatre-like overhang, chose a glass door from among the many hinged between the cement columns, walked through that door and across the tiled lobby of the hotel to the elevator.

On the wall near the elevators, there was a black sign with removable white letters that read, “ATS Gathering – Wolverine Room – 9th FL,” but he already knew where he was headed. Standing at the elevators, he saw that the lights showed that one was already at his floor and the other one was at the third floor. He was the only one standing in line and, being a little late, he pushed the button immediately, thinking that the door on the left would open but it didn’t. He had to wait for the one on the right to make its way down and for that door to open, which it did, and he rode up in the elevator alone, taking the time to be present with his breathing. When the compartment stopped and the gentle bell toned, he stepped out, turned left and walked to the men’s room to piss and wash his face. As he left the restroom and walked down the carpeted hall back past the elevators, the one that appeared to have been stuck on the first floor arrived, it’s door opened, and one of the Union Stewards and Julie stepped out, looking a little disheveled and embarrassed.

“Hey,” Walter said to them, nodding as he walked by, thinking, “Get it where and when you can.”

“Brown carpet, brown pattern, light brown walls,” he thought, “I’m in a brown hotel in a brown town.”

He walked down the hall and into the conference room, lovers bringing up the rear.

He was just in time to catch the last words of the Union President Lee’s speech, proclaiming how successful they’d been this year, in negotiations with management, and how important the union was; how everyone was getting their monies worth for the dues they had to pay. There was a smattering of applause, mostly from the union diehards and drivers who’d been there over twenty years; the ones who really benefited from the structure of the contract. Walter applauded, too.

“Lets’ eat!” ordered Lee. The food was served buffet style with people lining up, grabbing plates, napkins and utensils as they reached the start of the spread, and the usual socializing began. Walter chitchatted mildly, mostly smiled and remained friendly- looking but reserved, the way most of the bus operators normally saw him. The food was common hotel fare but tasty: Canapés, shrimp, veggie and chicken wraps, simple sushi, bruschetta, tenderloin, dim sum, oysters, and a variety of cheeses. Walter hadn’t seen the catering menu but he expected the union had gone all out as evidenced by the quantity and variety. In his life, he remained thankful for small gifts and for the selection of non-face food choices on this occasion, he was grateful. There was a drifting to tables, informally influenced by cliques: Loud groups here, quiet groups there, Christians here, anarchists there. Walter sought out Marti, who’d been one of his primary instructors during training, and placed his plate of food beside hers.

“How’s that catnip doing?” he asked her.

Months before, he had brought her a planting separated from the crop at Mara’s house.

“My cats love you even if they don’t know you,” came her reply.

There seemed to be no darkness inside Marti’s heart; the drivers called her Mama Duck, ‘cause she always had a string of trainees waddling behind her. During his driver’s training, she had told him, “There’s a lot of love at the River,” in reference to the affairs that often caused divorces and resultant new pairings, and the drama. He’d see her around the garage in various states of being hugged and she’d explained that she came from a family conditioned not to hug and to never express love and was just now being reconditioned by these hugs. Walter had given her a smile, then, but never a hug.

“I was driving down Division last night,” Marti said, “and got slowed to a stop by traffic and some guy started beating on the door, wanting to get onboard.”

“Were you at a bus stop?” someone asked.

“No, and it was getting dark. I yelled at him and told him I couldn’t pick him up there,” she said.

“So?” Walter asked.

“The traffic cleared and I pulled away and a minute later I heard gun shots,” she said, a guilty smile on her face.

Everyone at the table just shook their head; you could tell they were seeing themselves in her place.

Most of the union members hung around to take advantage of the free booze and the chance to see people they usually didn’t get to see in their comings and goings on the job. Rumor had it that some of the drivers, in attendance without their chaperones, had rented a room a few floors down in order to see even more of their opposite sex friends.

“More drama,” he said to those gathered around the table.

“The real drama takes place in the warehouse,” someone said before the others sitting at the table shushed him.

“No, he should know, too,” the person continued.

“Know what?” Walter asked.

“It’s just a rumor,” Marti said.

“It’s not; it’s true,” the original speaker said, “Certain elements, shall we say, of the union have diverted funds from the garage project and bought one of the old warehouses across the train tracks from the garage. They’ve refurbished it and that’s where they plan their deeds and have their own little soirees, so there’s no need for them to rent a room here.”

“Food for thought,” thought Walter.

Walter finished his solid nourishment and started migrating around the room, angling for the exit. He saw Julie across the room where she was giving a hug to another Bus Operator, another one of the Union Stewards, not the one from the elevator. She was in the company of several female and male drivers but she saw him and they gave each other a wave. She was the only one who seemed to take notice of him so Walter waited until she was no longer looking in his direction and then exited the conference room and walked down the hall. What he didn’t know was that Julie had seen him leave and she had assumed just what he thought anyone seeing him leave would assume.

“If anyone saw me leave,” he thought, “they’ll either assume I’ve left to use the restroom or that I’ve left the building.”

He walked past the elevators, keeping near the right hand side of the hall and then, after taking a quick glance behind to make certain no-one was watching, he turned the corner to the right and made his way out to the balcony that ran half way around the building on the ninth floor. Julie had excused herself from the group she was with, and walked out in the hallway too late to see which way Walter had turned but fast enough to see that none of the floor lights of the elevator were lit up. She assumed Walter was in the restroom and walked down the hall and to the left and into the ladies’ room to freshen up, making certain she was quick. Finished, she stood outside waiting for Walter to come out of the men’s room. She remained waiting just long enough to be puzzled that he hadn’t come out, before heading back to the party. “Nice view,” Walter thought to himself, standing on the balcony with the river below and the tree covered hills rolling away behind it, the sun just starting to set and, unusual for River City, a pretty light purple sky presented itself in the background.

Slightly below, he could see a flight of Tree Swallows doing their aerial acrobatics as they gathered their food. After a few minutes, he saw one of the stewards, who had been in the garage during the killing, start out of the door from the meeting room. Walter quickly stepped back behind the structure of the building and out of sight before the steward looked in his direction. From the nearby expressway, he could hear the sounds of the traffic passing by. A minute later, after making sure everything seemed safe, the steward stepped back inside the building, there was some conversation just inside the door that Walter couldn’t make out, and then Lee walked out, set his drink glass on the flat railing of the balcony, and reached in his pocket for a cigar and his matches. While he was cutting, then lighting his cigar, Walter walked slowly towards him, looking a little drunk but friendly. Walter could hear the match pull across the cement supporting the railing and then heard the phosphorous and potassium chlorate ignite. Lee saw Walter coming and got a cocky look on his face, tossed the match to the deck, took a long draw on his cigar then held it away from his mouth with his left hand. Lee was a big man, just over six feet and weighing two-fifty or two-sixty, muscle going to fat but he was still strong and with that strength came a big ego. Walter put out his right hand and, when he was just close enough to Lee for a handshake, he seemed to stumble or trip and he fell forward and into Lee, pushing him away from the railing and back towards the door. Lee, from his years of playing football and generally pushing people around, instinctively reversed direction and pushed back against Walter. Walter used the momentum of Lee’s push-back, grabbed the lapels of Lee’s jacket, pivoted on his feet, pushed first his hip then his butt into Lee’s waste, pulling Lee up and over on Walter’s bent back and then further, over the railing. For Lee, time may have slowed down or stopped but for Walter, it passed as it always did. There was a gap between the steel railing and the low, cement wall that held it and, as Lee passed by this gap, his eyes looked into Walters.

Walter saw some chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the railing, and the light blue color of Lee’s eyes, and thought, “Hmmm, I never noticed that before.”

In the background, some of the birds in flight were talking rapidly, maybe saying in their own way what they’d just seen. The puff of a breeze swirled across the deck but did nothing to disturb the space where Lee had last stood. To his credit, Lee never dropped his cigar as he lashed out so strongly with his free hand that he broke his little finger on the railing while grabbing for something to save him, and then he fell, like the sack of shit he was, 100 feet to the rocks and water of the river below.

Walter felt a small twinge in his back and thought, “Damn, I hope I didn’t throw my back out.”

Before Lee’s body hit hard stone and mud and spread the water wide, Walter stood up, sent some healing thoughts to his lower spine, and checked his hands and face for possible cuts or scratches, looked over his clothes for possible tears or missing buttons, checked the floor around him for anything that might point to him and then, finding nothing, he walked at an even pace back around the balcony to the door he’d come out of and back into the conference room that was filled with happy voices. He sidled up to the bar and ordered himself a Cola. It took another few minutes for the steward to feel like Lee should have returned. When he went out the door and onto the balcony, he saw the drink glass standing on the railing and a burnt wooden match on the floor; there was still a lingering smell of Cuban tobacco in the air, so he figured Lee must have taken a walk around the building. The steward went back inside but, less than a minute later, he got an uneasy feeling, waved for the others who Walter had seen that early morning in the garage, and together they slid back out the door and began their search. It took them another ten minutes to look over the railing, see the mess below and, with a snap or a crack like lightning, the loud shouts began and the aura of fear began at the balcony and rushed through the door and oozed into the conference room, shading everything with a pallor of muddied red and dark muddied blue. Within a half hour the police, ambulance, and fire personnel began to show up and start to sort things out. People had been leaving the party but Walter made certain that he stayed until the police locked the place down. He wanted to be interviewed and photographed, if they were efficient, to document his lack of incriminating evidence. If the police or Lee’s goons ever figured out that this had been a killing, rather than an accident or suicide, they’d start with the people seen leaving just after Lee went missing. From where he stood, he saw Julie being interviewed by a police officer, then glance in his direction with a confused look on her face, as if she’d just thought of something, and then leave. Walter figured she was upset, as a normal person would be, at the death of anyone.

That same policeman walked over and interviewed Walter, asking the predictable questions, “Did you see anything?” “Did you hear anything?” “Do you have any ideas about what happened?” “Did the deceased appear to be drunk?”

The cop took his contact information and asked him to leave. Walter rode the elevator down alone, as he had coming up, walked towards his car and stepped off the curb. He was rounding the car, to get in, but stopped to watch and listen as those same two doves landed on the sidewalk and started with their soft cooing notes. At that moment, Walter didn’t have an issue with anyone. The man who’d made the mistake of threatening him had been taken care of and that was good enough for him.

“It was indicated, Jed,” Walter thought to himself as he sat in his car and drove towards home and Mara. It was fairly late when he got home. As he pulled into the driveway, his car lights caught sight of Shakti, the gray and white feline, lying on the pavement that was, probably, stilling holding the day’s heat. She lay still as he drove slowly in and parked next to her, making sure he was a safe distance away.

He got out, taking his gym bag with him, shut the car door, punched the lock button on his key-fob and said, to Shakti, “Hey Little Girl. What’cha doin?”

She just looked at him.

“You should move when a car comes in. You could get hurt.”

He gave her a head rub and then unlocked and passed through the front door to the breezeway, locking it behind him. He made sure that the back breezeway door was locked, that the door to the garage was locked and then let himself in to the house through the kitchen door, locking that one behind him as well. Mara usually took the pills, that helped her sleep, an hour or so before she wanted to crash and he thought she might still be up, watching DVD’s or something interesting on television but she wasn’t. Sometimes the booze and other pills she’d taken during the day hastened the onset of her dreams. The house was generally dark; just a couple of nightlights on in the hallways, and the door to her room was shut. He kept the lights off, liking the darkness, and took off his shoes and outer clothes and put them away in the closet in his writing room and then went downstairs to the bathroom in the basement, took his underclothes and socks off and dropped them in his hamper, and took a shower. As smoothly as it had gone, it had still been a long time since he’d done anything like what he’d done today, and it had proved stressful. The hot water felt good. He washed the day from his skin and, thinking of Mara and how it used to be, and then Jade and how it could be, he touched himself until he grew hard and then came and, with that, let the stress go. He stepped from the stall and chose one towel from the many he kept hanging on the walls in that room, and dried his body.

He brushed and flossed, applied some lotion, and then took a leak, “Left a pee,” his mind said.

He headed back upstairs, slipped into a pair of chonies that had been a gift from Mara, and took a silent walk around the inside of the house, stopping, standing at each window, peering into the darkness. This was his ritual. At these times, he usually thought of nothing, remained open to what might be. When he was finished, he walked down the hall, opened her bedroom door, and could make out her outline in the glow of her earth clock. She was on her right side in the fetal position and he could hear her deep sleep breathing, not a snore, but a sound that he knew as a good one.

He thought, “She walked right up to the edge of the Void and started drinking,” and then, “We’ll both sleep good tonight.”
And they did, and he dreamed, and the rain began to fall again.

– Be Still –

Lottery

If I have enough money to eat I’m good.

Shia LaBeouf

Unless he’d been up late the night before or had to get up especially early, Walter’s morning ritual was to rise, grind the beans and get the coffee started and, while it brewed, go to the basement, relieve himself, wash his face and brush his teeth and tongue and then put his legs up the wall, letting his lower back relax, hugging himself tightly and then curling up until he felt his back crack, and then spread his legs wide to stretch his hamstrings and calves, and then move to cobbler’s pose to loosen his pelvis.  Next, he’d bring his legs down and roll over into child’s pose, sitting back deeply on his knees before lowering his torso over them and touching his forehead to the floor, walking his fingers, hands and arms as far out in front of his body as he could, feeling his upper back and shoulder muscles roll into place from the movement.  After holding that pose for a few moments, he’d roll over and do some twists, first rolling his legs to one side, arms to the other, and then reversing the process.  Lastly, he’d tuck his knees to his chest, hold them there with his hands and arms, and then roll in circles, massaging his back again.  Finally loosened up, he head back upstairs and fill his mug with steaming black coffee and carry it to his reading room and start up his iMac.

The drawing was on Saturday night but it wasn’t until his morning ritual on Sunday that he saw he had won the Fantasy 5 lottery the night before.  The winning amount wasn’t what most people dreamed about, but the after tax remainder of $131,457 would leave him just enough money to pay off the debt he’d incurred in pursuit of his Ph.D., his younger son’s student loans, and the $6,400 he still owed his last ex-wife from their recent visit to the courts.  Some part of him said to just cash out and move south without making good on his debts but he knew that decision would come back to bite him if he ever wanted to come back to the world.  He pulled the folder that held the documents he’d put together in anticipation of this occasion.  Since it was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and the Lottery Office wouldn’t be open the next day, Monday, it would give him a couple of days to think things over.

He had a feeling of satisfaction, like having taken a good shit.  He felt more deeply at peace.  With the balance, any money pressure he might have felt would truly be off.  It was his secret and he didn’t intend to share it with anyone, not even with Mara.  She had been very generous with him, letting him stay at her home pretty much rent free and loaning him money, now and then, when he got in a bind, but he knew how she could be about money, even in the middle of her suffering, and he could envision her asking for half but, for once, he was going to take care of himself.  Besides, they had agreed to split the winnings only if one of them netted a million or more. Beyond those few debts, he didn’t have any unmet needs or material desires – he was clear on how he found satisfaction and it wasn’t in most of the things that money could buy.  The debts were from his old life, his old self, and this money would be a convenience to help clear that slate.

Tuesday, after his bus runs, he’d head over to the state office on Plainfield just north of the interstate, sign the papers and have the money put into his account.  After that he’d make some calls, get the wiring instructions or have some cashier’s checks printed and get them in the mail.  The only thing he had to watch out for was going unconscious and doing something stupid before he took care of business but, then again, if he walked in front of a moving bus before cashing in and paying his debts, it would no longer matter to him.

He left his room and went to the kitchen to put a large slice of cranberry walnut bread into the toaster oven and grabbed the organic crunchy peanut butter from the refrigerator and the honey from the cupboard.  He refilled his coffee mug and looked over the sink, gazing out of the kitchen window at the early morning finches feeding from the thistle sack Mara had hung from the Shepard’s Hook stuck in the dirt of her front shade garden.   Above, the sky was typical for this time of year, mostly white and gray, no blue but not raining.  When the toaster chimed, he pulled the bread, spread on a generous amount of peanut butter and dribbled a long and repeated S of honey, grabbed his coffee and headed back to his room to read his email, check to see if his kids or any of his few friends had new postings to Facebook, and then read the news that interested him, checked the Mixed Martial Arts page, and then the weather.  No rain was forecast for the day.  He was long finished with his second coffee and the toast.

He ejected his Garmin from the USB cord that was attached to the port on his computer and buckled it around his left wrist, and shut down the machine.  Mara was up and he heard her coming out of her bathroom.

“Hey,” he called, “how’d you sleep?”

“Pretty good…I’m groggy,” she answered.

Walter got up and went to her, rubbed her back and gave her a kiss.

“Did you make some coffee?” she asked.

“Yah, there’s plenty out there.”

He could hear her opening the kitchen door and assumed she was going out, thru the breezeway, to her patio for a smoke.  The cats came running in, each one heading to a different place: Ringo for food, Zoë just barely down the basement steps, crouching, and then running back up and outside to be with Mara, Shakti to the living room to groom and sleep after the long night of hunting, and Shiva into Walter’s room, talking, waiting to jump up to his lap and shove his head into Walter’s armpit and start purring as Walter sat back down.

“Hey, how are you doing?” Walter said to Shiva as he rubbed his neck and back.  Shiva pulled his head and reversed his position, shoving his head into the right armpit now.

“Everything’s okay,” Walter said, continuing his petting.

After a few minutes, he heard Mara come back in, pour her coffee and milk, stir in some Stevia and head to her leather chair to grab her laptop and start her morning routine.  He picked Shiva up off of his lap and walked him to the doorway, placing him on the floor in the hallway outside of his room, and then pulled the pocket door shut.  He went to the corner and pulled a stick of Copal Resin incense from a sealed back, hooked it in the black clay burner, lit it with a wooden match and then snuffed the match out in a container of sand as the smoke drifted up towards the ceiling.  Walter watched the smoke rise upward, spreading out and then dropping back down, filling the room with its rich and unique scent.  He picked up his meditation timer, which was set to forty minutes, and pressed the start button.  Before the three sounds, that simulated a singing bowl, chimed the start of this time he’d set aside, he was seated in his leather and wooden chair, bare feet touched together, again in Cobbler’s pose, the sarong Mara made for him wrapped around his back, shoulders, and draped over his head, his hands holding it secure, his eyes closed and breathing steady and strong enough to hear both on the breath in and the breath out.

To Walter, his mind was just beginning to understand how mystical life was but, to him, there was nothing mystical about meditation.  He had listened to practitioners talk about it and he’d seen how the popular media and the culture he’d been born into portrayed it.  He understood how it could bring about a relaxed state of being, lower blood pressure, and help surface repressed thoughts and feelings.  His goal, though, was to cause his hippocampus to reduce the flow of information to the orientation association area of his brain and cause energy to flow from that deafferented area and pass through his limbic system until it crashed into his hypothalamus with such force that it bounced back up the path from which it came, only to be sent down again, and thus begin a continuous flowing circle of calming impulses until he experienced a total shutdown of neural input.  From his studies, Walter expected that, if he were successful, he’d see God.

In what seemed like a moment, the clock marked the end of his allotted time.  He took the cloth from his body before he opened his eyes and dropped his feet flat on the floor.  He stood up; lovingly folded the turquoise and silver cover and placed it on top of his dresser, opened the pocket door and headed to the basement to change into his running clothes.

It was much cooler in the basement, but he stripped off the chonies and T-shirt he had slept in and dropped them in the laundry hamper.  He had his running shoes laid out in a Rubbermaid wall cabinet and his shirts, shorts, socks and other gear in a chest of drawers of the same brand.  He grabbed his black and yellow Saucony Mirage 2 shoes off of a shelf, some good socks out of the bin, a pair of black running shorts, and wrapped his Garmin strap around his chest before pulling on a bright yellow dry wicking running shirt.

“Nothing like being fashionable,” he thought.

He went into his bathroom, washed his hands and took off his glasses, replaced them with contact lenses, brushed his teeth for the second time that morning, took a leak, washed his hands again, and then headed up the stairs and out the door, slowing long enough to let Mara know that he was off on a run.

Outside, after locking the doors behind him and stowing the key in his shorts, he pushed the start button on his watch and waited while it located satellites. Once the watch locked-in, Walter pressed the start button and started his run, heading down-hill on the driveway to the road, turning right for a four block run through the development, and then up a steep short hill to a main road.  When he looked at the computer log later, he saw that his pulse peaked, here, and then dropped back to 70-84% for the rest of the run.  He ran left, along the shoulder and then across to a side street with nice homes set back on large lawns.  Out of that lane, he turned right and crossed over, down another main road, keeping to the shoulder, facing the oncoming cars and running past the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witness and the Third Reformed Christian Church.  Walter always kept his eyes on the cars, knowing how asleep drivers could be, ready to jump out of the way if he needed to.  Coming at him were pickup trucks, cars, and vans full of folks on their way to church or their weekly family breakfast at the local diner.  When there was a lull in the traffic, he crossed the road and ran the dog bone shaped street that added another quarter-mile to his run.  Coming back out, he crossed back over and headed to the corner, passing the Wealthy Park Baptist Church; he turned left for another quarter-mile, he’d be at a mile-and-a-half now, until he came to the right-hand turn into the cul-de-sac, which added another quarter-mile and a down-hill out and up-hill in, to the run.  The whole route was covered in asphalt or cement but not hot on the cloudy day.  Out of the cul-de-sac he turned right, for just a short distance, and then curved around left, the only way he could, to begin the long straight portion from two miles to four, passing homes and the First Protestant Reformed Church, and the Chabod House.

He was thinking how he had ran his body, as fast as he could, into middle age and had always thought that he was wise before his age because of it.  When he came to middle age, where he was on that run, and met Mara, he realized that he had been committing suicide without recognizing it, killing himself with pain and depression for years, and was well on his way to his death.  He knew that Mara’s lessons had given him the will to try and turn his life around.  What he didn’t know, on that day, was that Mara was soon to teach him her greatest lesson.

At the fourth mile, Walter turned right, a full sweat going, and started the long, slow hill that would last another mile and take him by Congregation Ahavas Israel.

He was thinking of Jade and he knew, then, that she was Maya and he thought that she would be his last distraction.  His feelings, for her, had been too strong and the relationship too one-sided.  His instinct said that he knew her and loved her but it had all come from reading her letters and journals and looking at her art and watching her.  She had almost never interacted with him, unless she was confined to a car with only the two of them in it.  When around him, she usually behaved as if he didn’t exist, as if she couldn’t even see him.  Her only appreciation, of him, seemed to be that she could get information from him on those nights when Mara wouldn’t talk.

He was feeling the effort in his butt cheeks and wondered if he would ever get beyond feeling the effort somewhere. The hill crested and his run started back down, this time trotting past the Jewish Federation of River City and Temple Emanuel.  An attractive, lithe brunette came running at him, smiling and saying, “Hello,” as they passed.  At the end of the fifth mile, he turned left and was forced to run on the concrete sidewalk, past the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, until he came to mile seven and turned up a newly paved road past the Marywood Center with its home for the Nuns.  There, it was the same long hill from the other side.  He thought how it seemed that hills were always tilted up, seldom down.  He was on the shoulder, running under a lining of large Sycamore trees, his favorites, keeping as far from the road and as close to the outside edge of the gravel along the shoulder, as he could.

There was a blue-gray Toyota Corolla coming at him, well out in the road near the white dashed centerline; one of the Nuns was driving.  The car got within twenty feet of Walter and the driver pounded her horn, and kept pounding, and, although he couldn’t hear what she said, he could see her mouth and face as she screamed something at him.  He started to yell back but laughed to himself instead, imaging her failing eyesight and how the sight of him might have startled her. When he had been far into a run in Mexico, he had tried to nod a greeting to a young man sporting a Superman tattoo and that guy had looked startled and then turned away, as if in embarrassment.  When Walter got back to his abode, he’d looked in the mirror and had seen two long red streaks where the blood from his raw nipples had stained the front of his white running shirt.  His nipples no longer bled but he was sure that his image still inspired shock when he ran.

He looked down where his left foot struck the ground and amid the Queen Anne’s Lace and periwinkle Chicory, he saw a rare albino Chicory in full blossom.

Covered in a long black coat and topped with a wide-brimmed black hat, a bearded Hassidic with his cute six year old daughter walked by, headed in the direction from which Walter had just come.  Walter tried to make eye contact and nod a greeting but the walker looked away.

“You dress that way so as to diminish yourself and not stand out within your tribe but, in doing so, you only make yourself stand out in the greater society,” thought Walter.

At the top of that hill, he turned right for an eighth of a mile run back to his starting point.  He stopped his timer and pressed the button to record the data.  He stood outside for some time, letting his sweat slow and drip to the earth, regaining his regular breath, giving thanks for his ability to run.  Along the edge of the lawn he saw parked a familiar small car.

Lizzy’s friend Ingrid was there, in the kitchen, when Walter walked in.  She and Mara were both there, standing with their backs to him, rinsing vegetables in the sink, talking and looking out the window.  They would have seen him finish his run.  Mara was on the right, looking cute in her hippy sort of way.  Ingrid was on the left, taller and slim with long brunette hair.  She was wearing blue jeans that were tight at her butt yet loose enough around her waist to slip a hand in, and the skin of her back was showing, as well as about an inch of the crack of her ass. He wondered if she knew.  He wondered if she cared.  Her skin looked warm and inviting. He thought about slipping a finger in and wondered, again, if she knew what men thought, if she cared.  She had on rubber knee boots that were brightly painted with flowers.  They all said hello and the girls asked about his run.

He went quickly to the basement, undressed, tossed the wet clothes into a bucket of fresh, cold water splashed with Woolite, took a shower and changed into his peasant outfit: black karate pants, thin black T-shirt, and bare feet, then went past the ladies, who were still chatting, out to the patio and lit the grill.  He took a seat, as the grill heated up, and waited for the women to bring him out the cut and spiced zucchini, red bell peppers, carrots, kale, mushrooms, sweet and red onions, cherry tomatoes, and broccoli for him to cook, most of it from Mara’s raised beds.  A moment later, Ingrid walked over to him with a drink to replenish him after his run.  Her midriff and belly button were showing between her jeans and blouse and her hip bones stood out and angled, slightly inward and down, pointing towards her pubic triangle.  She had a tight belly and smooth skin.  She often wore a padded bra, maybe feeling the social or personal need to give a suggestion of larger breasts, but today her teats were hanging free beneath the cloth, pointing outward.

“You look just fine, to me,” thought Walter.

As if reading his mind, and to thank him for the thought, she reached out and rubbed the shaved hair on his nearly bald head.