Chapter 17 – Gypsy

I and my Father are one.

Jesus Christ

 

              When Monday came, the shadows didn’t have far to run because the low clouds lay in a heap near the ground, blocking out the light that would have been.  It wasn’t until he neared the parking garage at work that the tipping point was reached and the suspended water turned to rain.

              “The clouds aren’t weeping for her, they’re indifferent,” thought Walter

              In the operators’ lounge and Dispatch, not one person spoke to Walter.  No one asked him a question or spoke a greeting but he could tell that they all knew.  As if something was happening to his vision, he sensed that the aura of the room kept shifting, moving from muddy blue to muddy gray and then almost blending into black before the sensations passed. Whatever had pulled back in Walter was still withdrawn and he felt numb but could hear the sparrows in the steel rafters and the sound of the drivers’ shoes as they walked across the floor and the low murmur of voices behind him.

              It was his usual time. He was to be driving his usual route. He drew Gypsy and was, in a small way, thankful for that.

              He was on autopilot.  Everything was automatic.  At the correct time he aimed his body in the correct direction and went to the correct lane to find the faithful elephant.

              “Hey Girl,” he said, touching her above her headlights as he walked to the front door.

              He did his Pretrip and she looked fine until it came time to pop the brake and rock her.  The brake initially held but then slipped and she lurched forward.

              “Fuck,” he said to the air.

              Walter picked up the bus phone and waited for Jim, in Dispatch, to respond.

              “What’s up?” Jim asked.

              “This is Walter.  I’m on bus 256 in lane 16.  There’s something wrong with the brakes,” Walter informed him.

              “Wait there.  I’ll get Maintenance,” Jim said.

              It was only a few seconds until two of the more senior mechanics came out of their shop and walked across the cement floor to Gypsy. Walter was still sitting in the driver’s seat and had his window fully opened.

              “What’s the problem?” one of them asked.

              “When I tested the air-brake, it failed,” Walter said, “Should I get another bus?”

              “You don’t use a 10lb fire extinguisher to put out a 5lb fire,” was their answer, “we’ll fix it.”

              They fiddled around under the front wheels on both sides, holding a whispering conversation with each other, and then worked through the side panel and the engine compartment, before coming back to Walter’s window.

              “She’s good now. You can go,” said the older Wrench, looking cocky, a smudge of grease under his left eye.

              Walter was already five minutes late so he buckled back up, shut the doors, shifted into gear, honked his horn and took Gypsy through the door and out of the garage, headed for his first stop.

              “I don’t know why I’m even doing this,” ran through his mind.

              As he headed down the road, he saw a black man walking east on Fulton Street, wearing a life-vest.

              “Mara died last week,” his mind said.

              He came to New Campus and picked up the kids.

              “You’re late,” one of them said as he boarded.

              Walter just stared at him before saying, “You’re right.”

              The rain had let up slightly but the sky was still too dark to think that it had ended for the day.

              The morning runs were routine except for the rain and the wind that seemed to have increased markedly form the week before.  The students appeared to be devoted to their classes and ridership was pretty high, sometimes requiring students to stand in the isle since all of the seats were taken.

              One rider, obviously not a student, rang the stop bell but Walter didn’t immediately pull over because he wasn’t at lollipop yet; the Free-rider stood up and walked to the yellow line.

              “You missed my stop!” he yelled, “Wake your ass up!”

              Walter stopped quickly, the brakes fading with the water, opened the door and pointed.  There was something in his eyes that told the guy just to shut up and get off.

               “I’m quitting today,” is what Walter’s mind finally arrived at.

              He had fallen back into a daze, no longer even pretending to be in control.  He wasn’t aware of his thoughts.  He was probably thinking about Mara and his life ahead without her.  He skipped his lunch and never used the head.  He sat in the driver’s seat his entire shift, a change from his normal routine of getting out and stretching at every opportunity.  When the students got on, he had to press a button on the fare box to keep count and he usually looked into their eyes and greeted them as he did so. That day he counted shoes rather than eyes.

              “Get used to it, kids.  You’re just a number,” he thought.

              On his last outbound run, his favorite young woman got on.  Her shoes were soaked but he could instinctually tell it was she.  He looked up.  She had on a soft, lavender colored blouse that brightened the area around her and she carried an umbrella.  Even with the rainshade her hair had gotten slightly wet and was in the process of curling.

              “It only makes her cuter,” he thought but the words came through a mist; not a mist from the moisture in the air but one from whatever it was that was shutting his brain down.

              He thought he greeted her but, based on her look and lack of response, he might not have.  She hesitated for a moment but then, pushed by the students getting on behind her; she moved on and took a seat.  He could see her legs and lap in his round overhead mirror.

              The bus pulled out.  Gypsy was being her usual, good self; she had to be, Walter wasn’t really there.

              When he stopped for the train tracks and opened his doors, he looked left and then right and, as he did so, he saw a sports utility vehicle ignore Gypsy’s four-way flashers and pass him on the right, barely squeezing through, racing and bouncing over the railroad tracks.  He couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl driving, it looked like a redheaded Jughead from the Archie comics.  He could tell that the driver’s window was rolled down, even in the rain, and the driver was speaking over a blue-tooth in an animated way.  Walter’s hard wiring tried to gauge how attractive it was, using both genders but nothing clicked.  None of the passengers seemed to notice.

              The morning was starting to feel surreal.  Up ahead of him, he could see the SUV make a right turn from the left turn lane.

              “What the fuck?” said his mind again.

              Walter was aware that he was wounded.  He had been wounded before but as far as he knew, this time the wound might prove to be fatal.  He felt a sudden heaviness and, once he realized it, he thought that he might not be able to keep on driving.   He thought about calling Dispatch and asking for a relief driver.  He thought about just pulling Gypsy over, setting her brakes, and leaving.

              “There’s no lesson in this,” he murmured.

              In his mirror, he saw the knees of the girl shift, as if she’d heard him.  It made him think of her and the life still animating her form and it brought him back, a bit, and the heaviness lifted from him just a little.

              The most surreal thing, so far, happened next.  There were loops of a cloverleaf interchange that fed vehicles to and from the expressway that passed through River City.  Route 60 didn’t use those ramps, but it passed under the highway and within sight of those feeders.  As Gypsy approached the underpass, a tractor-trailing rig slid on the wet surface of the highway, as it rounded the curve of the off ramp, and jumped over the guardrail.  Some of the passengers saw it and starting yelling.  In the time it took Walter to realize what was happening, the entire eighteen-wheeler was pulled over the rail and came crashing sixty feet to the ground. 

              There were many other cars with drivers closer to the crash site than Gypsy was, and there was nothing, really, that Walter could have done to be of assistance, other than to call Dispatch and report the incident, which he did.  The angle was too sharp for Gypsy’s camera’s to have caught anything and Walter could see cars stopped and people rushing to the truck.

              “Just keep on route.  We’ll let you know if the police need to talk with you,” said Jim, in Dispatch.

              Walter pulled the overhead microphone down and announced to the passengers that emergency personnel were on their way and would take care of the accident.  There seemed to be a hundred conversations going on in the space behind him.

              He drove up the hill, past the Realty building where no passengers waited.  The rain was still light and a herd of Wrens or an exaltation of Larks, as usual, flew past the windshield in front of Gypsy.  Walter said that seeing the birds always brought him back to Presence but all he saw, then, were black spots moving in the sky. The Watcher sitting behind everything that was Walter remained distant.  The brakes seemed to feel softer and less effective, fading more often when he made his approaches to the stops.

              “A little water on the wheels,” he thought, but then, “I should have checked them again, after Maintenance fixed them.”

              They continued and made good time and the five minutes that he had lost at the start were long since made up.  At the turnoff behind the Fire station, Gypsy sat alone for three minutes, no inbound bus in sight.  They pulled out, turned right and headed to the final stop before the long, fast run down to the river and then back up to the campus turn.  At the last stop, six who were obviously students got on, as well as one who didn’t appear to be a student. He thought about asking her for her college ID, not to cause her problems but out of curiosity and for a lesson to himself.

              “She might be a professor,” went through his head, “or my second ex-wife.”

              She was older, probably in her sixties and fast approaching her seventies. Her pants were too short but they matched her top. For some, by that time, they know it’s a ruse and the floppers’ cartoon outfit doesn’t mean a thing.  For others, it’s just another sign that they’re doing the best they can on their trip to no-where. She had double sized lips; the brick red lipstick had more than missed its mark and the rogue and eye shadow completed her costume.  Walter didn’t know where she stood on the dream’s continuum but he let her ride for free.

              “As long as they give you a good story,” Marti would say and though that passenger didn’t speak, her appearance did give him a good story.

              There was also a younger woman at that stop and though the rain had been light for the past half-hour, she seemed to be out of place for the weather.  He knew it was trend but she was in flannel pajamas, wearing slippers and a hoodie and holding a 16oz bottle of Mt. Dew.

              “Are you getting on?” he asked.

              She looked at him with a blank stare and then walked away from the stop.

              The light was green and the passengers were all secure so he closed the doors and started forward.  Gypsy lurched, almost stopped, and made a chirping sound not unlike the one that Zoë used to make when she became excited by the birds.

              “What’s up, Girl?” he thought.

              He was becoming more present, and he knew it, but felt bad, in a way, as if he was being disloyal to Mara by suspending his grief for those few moments.

              “I love you,” his lips and tongue mimed, and he could see a mind-trace of her smiling as she walked along the beach.

              A tractor-trailer sped by, spraying water from its tires and frame.  High across the back of the gray aluminum box of the big rig, the letters G R I M were painted. 

              Gypsy picked up speed and, as usual, as she did so the cicadas started in with their song. There was a strong gust of wind from the north and then it passed and a flock of black birds flew by, large enough in number to make him take notice and see them as more than black dots against the sky.

              “They’re going the wrong direction,” Walter observed, wondering how they could move so rapidly against the wind.

              There was another strong gust and it pushed against Gypsy’s body, moving her to the left.  Walter held tightly to the wheel and brought her back.  He saw the black skulls around his wrist and remembered his death and its place in his life.

              “Thank you,” he said out loud.

              The lavender girl shouted, “What? We’ll be okay, right Walter?”

              “What is she talking about? How’s she know my name?” he furrowed his brow, wondering.

              “This is nothing.  It’ll be okay.  I’ll have you there soon,” he said.

              The rain hammered down upon the road a thousand yards in front of them, and then stopped and immediately a straight-line wind crashed through, tearing down eighty-foot tall trees and utility poles with their wires, toppling the row of tall, narrow wooden forms like dominoes.

              Gypsy was up to the speed limit now, doing fifty-five, and she was talking to him, saying things she’d never said before. The rain started again.  There was a flash of light and he saw an image reflected in the windshield but it was too bazaar for his mind to accept and he was too busy with the wheel and the weather to give it much thought.

              The rain came harder.  Walter knew that the weather had been bad but now he knew that the heavens were weeping; that they finally got the message and could no longer live with their denial.

                  They had passed 18th Avenue and were on the downhill run to the river, still travelling at 55mph.

                  “Maybe I should slow down,” he thought but, while the brakes were questionable, the road didn’t seem too slick and the heavy weight of the bus usually kept it from hydroplaning.

                  Someone rang the stop bell.  He looked at his inside mirror and every face he saw was drained of color.  No one was talking anymore; they all seemed…afraid?

                  “Kids,” Walter thought, “Their brains aren’t even fully formed yet.”

                  “Here…Now…This,” his breath became deeper, more regular.

                  There were weird sounds, not just from the chassis shaking and the engine vibrating and more than just the hissing of the tires tearing through the water, trying to hold on.  The air was pushing through the driver’s side window, like the fingers of a cold and fearsome hand, trying to grab the wheel and pull it from Walter’s grip. He shoved the window shut.

                  First he thought, ”I’ll slow down,” and then, “Maybe I should stop.”

He pushed the floor pedal but the brakes were weak, too weak.  The weather was getting worse, darker, the rain heavier and the wind stronger, screaming at them.  Inside his numb body he felt the beginning of some excitement and a small ember started a fire in the pit of his stomach.

Gypsy raced through the storm and, “It’s all just an illusion,” raced through his mind.

In the outside mirrors he could see the headlights of cars pulling to the side of the road and fading behind him as they stopped and he sped on.  In the inside mirrors it looked like a mineshaft.  His vision had narrowed to a tunnel like the first time he’d made a combat jump and all he could see were his boots and the earth, spinning below; now, all he could see was the isle between the seats, something lavender, and a red light glowing in the back wall of the bus, showing the cabin temperature, 72 degrees.

He turned his head and looked out of the side window.  Everything was dark even though it wasn’t time to be dark.  The water was flying off of the road, fanning out from the trough the tires made, throwing spay as high as the roof of the bus.  He started feeling anxious and then realized, there was nothing he could do anyway; it was all up to the driver of the bus; and then he realized, he was the driver of the bus.

“Walter!” was it Gypsy?

“WALTER!!!” it was the girl in the lavender blouse.

In the mirror everything and everyone was dark gray going to black; everyone except the girl in lavender.  It was like a light was shining on her.  She was pure, beautiful, radiant…and alive.

“THE BRIDGE, LOOK AT THE BRIDGE!” she yelled, one hand holding the frame of the bus seat, the other arm extended, her hand pointing forward.

Through the pouring rain and the darkness, straight ahead in the beam of Gypsy’s lights, the road was flaking and crumbling, shifting up and then down as if the earth was actually in upheaval.  There was a sudden, bright flash of lightening just as the asphalt started cracking, the yellow line reshaping itself from the solid, no-passing zone to a dashed line.

“Please pass,” Walter thought, “for her sake if no-one else’s.”

He pushed hard on the brake pedal and got nothing in return.

“This is it,” he thought.

He reached to his left and yelled,” HANG ON,” just before he pulled up on the air brake.

Nothing!

Ahead, the bridge was starting to collapse.

“This is going to be a Non-preventable Incident,” his head calmly said.

Her brakes were gone.  She kept speeding.  The bridge was falling. There was only one solution; he had to go off-route.  He couldn’t see any traffic coming towards him in the opposing lane so he started to shift Gypsy over that way, thinking that he could run her down the grass field to the left of the road, hopefully sinking into the muddy regolith and stopping her before hitting the river and without doing too much damage to his cargo.

               “You don’t need to remind me,” he thought, seeing the skulls wrapped around his left wrist, the hand covered with his driving glove, gripping and turning the wheel. 

              Off of the asphalt they flew, literally.  Gypsy had momentarily left the ground.

              “Dumbo,” Walter’s mind was working.

              She landed in the field, crashing down on her front right knee, the one she knelt on.  It collapsed and, as it did, everything started to slow down.  Walter looked into his inside mirror and could see only the girl in lavender; she was crying.

              There were tearing sounds as the front door flew off.  The windshield, designed to be kicked out as an emergency exit, flexed and then popped away leaving the bus completely unprotected from the air that was rushing towards it, the rain, and bits and pieces of grass and dirt as Gypsy tore up the field.  Ahead and to his right, Walter could see the bridge supports holding but the flat of the road falling in large chunks, attacking the river.

              “Walter,” he heard.

              “Mara,” he thought.

              The river was high, deep green but not pretty, moving rapidly towards the north and west, trying to spill into the big lake a hundred miles away.  Gypsy hit the surface of the water, and like a stone thrown to skip, she slid her length across the murky fluid, turning, twisting, and crying as the current pushed her into the concrete pier. 

              “Marti’s going to miss this bus,” rang a voice inside his head.

              Walter could see the cold water starting to pour into the open front of the bus as her movement stalled.  He reached for the release on his safety belt and pushed it just as something large, a floating tree, hit Gypsy’s roof and knocked him through the portal where the windshield had been.

              His head hit something.  Behind his eyelids, his brain began bouncing against the inside of his skull and his mind became overwhelmed and shut down like a circuit breaker.

              “Somebody had to pay,” he heard as everything started to go black, and then, “The violence done to protect secrets.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-…Let the breath flow out… –

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16 – Walk On

Dying is a wild night and a new road.
Emily Dickinson

It was May 3rd, a Thursday, and Walter had agreed to work an additional shift when another driver unexpectedly called in sick right before Walter’s first shift ended. Dispatch caught Walter as he was turning in his time card and requested that he take the run, which began a half-hour later. He called home and, when Mara didn’t pick up, he left a voice-mail message letting her know what was up.

“Hey Baby, it’s me. I’m working an extra four-hour shift tonight so I won’t be home until late. I’ll buy you a new car with the money. I hope you’re doing okay. I love you.”

“She’s probably watching Dexter or already knocked out by her pills,” he imagined.

The earth moved, at that moment, but Walter didn’t notice it until later when it moved again, and by then it was too late.

He joined two other drivers for the shuttle ride from the garage over to Central Station where he would wait until the Route 21 came in. It was a busy route with passengers usually standing at the lollipops at every stop, even though they’re only a block apart, and always one or two wheel chair riders.

When a wheelchair rider wants on, there are a couple of spots right behind the driver, on each side of the isle, where the seats fold up and a wheelchair can be latched for safety. If passengers were sitting in those seats, the bus operator would request that they get up and make room but it wasn’t a requirement. Some passengers knew they didn’t have to move, so they wouldn’t, but most people were considerate enough to make room. If the existing passengers wouldn’t move, the driver would have to tell the wheelchair rider that there was no safe room, and then phone it in to Dispatch so that the next bus coming along would be given a heads up. In rare cases, The River would send out a small vehicle to pick up the stranded wheelchair rider. If there was room, the driver would have to deploy the handicap ramp, let the wheelchair rider maneuver into a spot, and then, after asking permission and giving warning, fasten four strong nylon woven straps with metal hooks to the chair and then tighten them.

“Would you like the seatbelt also?” the drivers were required to ask. Almost no one wanted it, feeling that they were secure enough in their familiar chair.

The process took some time and slowed the bus down and added to the delays caused by the passenger load. Walter stood under the Teflon-coated fiberglass rood of Central Terminal while he waited, protected from the heavy rain that seemed like it had been falling for weeks. There was a black man standing near him, wearing a black fedora, a red shirt buttoned up to his neck, a red and black checkered vest, black slacks and shoes; looking sharp. Walter had seen him before.

“What’s up with this rain?” Walter asked.

“Highest spring rainfall on record, 42 inches over the past year,” Fedora answered, “following the highest snow fall on record, 83 inches this winter.”

“Man! So much for global warming,” Walter responded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Fedora said, “The melt came late. Probably be a lot of flooding.”

“There’s my ride,” Walter said, nodding towards bus no. 291, Route 21 lit up on the overhead sign.

“You riding with me?” Walter asked.

“Not today,” came the reply.

The inbound passengers off-loaded, as did the previous driver, telling Walter that the bus was running fine and just to watch out for some heavy water accumulation at some of the intersections. Walter hopped aboard, shutting the door behind him until he could get admin taken care of.

He punched in his codes, adjusted his seat and mirrors, did a quick walk through the bus, then sat down, buckled up, and opened the door for customers.

“Welcome aboard!” he shouted.

The run, up and back, was nothing out of the ordinary except for the heavy rain. He had to adjust his interior fans and keep them on full blast, as well as keeping the driver’s side window open an inch or two, to keep the windshield from fogging up.

The rain, and the hour, seemed to keep people off of the roads and resulted in a low number of passengers, also. He finished his second split four hours later, at about 8:30, shuttled back to the garage, turned in his paperwork, and headed down to the underground garage to find his car.

As he walked through the garage, he felt a trembling under his feet and momentarily lost his balance.

“What the fuck?” he said, out loud.

By the time he pulled his Honda out of the underground parking garage, it was nearing nine but the rain had let up and was almost stopped. It was a four mile drive from there to Mara’s home and it took him just over fifteen minutes, through the city, to make the trip. There was a car on his tail, headlights on high, as he slowed to make the turn off of Michigan Ave. onto her street, so he pulled to the shoulder as he started his turn, to give them room and let them pass. As he pulled into the driveway, water pushed by the wind dropped from a tree onto his windshield, and his lights glanced across something hard to see but white lying on the pavement.

“Crazy cat,” he said to himself.

Walter stepped out of his car, leaving his driver’s bag, thinking he’d be headed back early enough, shut his door and locked it.

“Hey Shakti, what…” he started to speak but then stopped when he saw her.

She was dead; it was obvious. He didn’t describe her to me; he just said that he thought she’d finally been run over while lying there, unafraid in the driveway. Walter took off his uniform shirt and placed it on the hood of his car, then took of his white undershirt before putting his arms back through the sleeves of his uniform. He knelt down and, using his T-shirt, picked up the little vessel that he had been so attached to, folded the shirt gently and warmly around her, and carried her around the side yard, past Mara’s raised vegetable beds, to the back yard of the house. He said that he wanted her remains to be safe until the morning, when she could have a proper burial, so he put her furry body into a plastic litter canister that stood, somewhat fittingly, on the patio, and closed the lid.

The back door from the breezeway to the patio stood open, which wasn’t usual but also wasn’t alarming; Mara often left it open, giving her cats easy passage, but usually only during the day.

“She was probably out for a smoke and forgot to close it,” is what he said he had thought.

The door from the breezeway to the hall of the kitchen also stood open and, as he passed through, he noticed that the two nightlights that they turned on by habit each night were not shining. Something inside of Walter started to pull back.

He checked the living room and saw that the television was off. He could see Shiva lying on the pad in the bay window, partially lit by the streetlight, and knew that something odd was up. Shiva would either have jumped up to great him or would have been long gone into the night at that hour.

Walter walked softly down the hall to Mara’s door and gently pushed it open. He could see her form, lying on her right side in her normal fetal position, most of her body covered by her burgundy comforter. Near her feet but more towards his side of her bed was Zoë. She looked as if her rear legs were paralyzed, maybe broken half-way down her spine, and she tried to rise up on her front legs but couldn’t. Her head was up, her eyes looking at him. She knew who he was and she wasn’t scared. He understood that the thing that she had always feared had happened while he ferried people around the city in the dark.

“There was no need to rush,” Walter told me.

He sat down in front of Zoë, on his side of the bed. There was no movement from the form that lay on the other side, no sound of heavy breathing, no sense of life.

He put his fingers to Zoë’s brow and caressed her.

“Hey girl. It’s okay,” he whispered, “Just sleep.”

She died to this world as he sat there with her, and then he rose and took the short walk that he had feared for these past six years. I think, in reality, it was the walk that his soul knew of and the one that he feared for his entire life.

Mara’s body laid there, the form that he held so dear.

“Are you gone now? Have you disappeared?”

She was surrounded by her pill bottles, empty booze glasses, and nearby was a sketch that Jade had drawn. The room was still filled with the fragrance of incense, a gift from Sam on her birthday just passed.

He lay down beside her form and took her in his arms. Her smell was still there in her hair. He whispered to her that he understood. He whispered to her that he would miss her. He whispered to her that he had always loved her and always would.

“Thank you for saving my life,” he whispered to her as he kissed her forehead.

He heard the sound, “Goodbye” from a thousand voices, and then he heard the sweetness in the silence that remained after she was gone. Walter looked at her clock; it read 9:15 p.m. He put his lips back to her skin until hours later, when he looked at the clock again; it read 9:21 p.m.

They lay there, together, until the day pushed away the night.

He didn’t cry.

He called Dispatch and told them he wouldn’t be in that day.

“It’ll cost you three points,” they said.

“Write me up. I’m not coming in,” he emphasized.

He called the funeral home where her mother had been cremated and, per her wishes, had them come get her remains and take the shell away.

Three hundred miles away, Jade woke up and rose from her bed.

Walter thought of calling Jade’s estranged husband first and then he thought about calling her neighbors first and then he gave her the respect she deserved and he called her first.

“Hi Jade,” Walter softly said.

She knew something was wrong.

“She’s gone,” is all he had to say.

There was no response, no sound; she just hit “End” on her IPhone and sat down.

He called Sam. Sam wanted to know when, and how, and where she was. He started talking and then stopped. He drove over, bringing his lover with him. He was crying but not talking. Walter told him about Shakti, and Shiva, and Zoë, and that Ringo was nowhere to be found. Sam stood there crying harder, sobbing, and then he walked through her house and yard, looking for Ringo. Sam’s girlfriend was crying, too. Walter never cried.

That weekend, Walter stopped the world so that he could move about in it. He had known what was coming. Before the bomb went off, he had turned to face it. The part of life that dealt with death, he understood, he knew that his pain was because of his attachment to her and, I suppose, to the cats.

On Sunday, people drifted in until there were a couple dozen in her house, some breaking into tears as they gave each other hugs, only a few talking, good people thinking of her and how much they loved her but how they couldn’t reach her. One by one, they made their way to a sofa, chair, or the floor and sat until the room became quiet and still. When he felt that the time was right, Walter motioned to the motionless guests and they followed him out into her yard and garden.

To Walter, it seemed that the energy that had activated her form and now left her had been infused into the vegetables and flowers in her garden. It seemed that in the course of just the few days since she had been gone, the tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, carrots, basil, and onions had all grown to an enormous, healthy size.

“Please, harvest her food. Please, take down from the trees her bells and flags and ornaments and keep them as a memory of her. Cut her flowers for your table and, in return, leave your tears here, let them fall to the earth that she cared for and then stop your crying. Remember her…and live,” Walter spoke and they did as he asked.

Kara, Jade’s schoolmate who had become Mara’s confidant, approached Walter hesitantly. She didn’t look like she wanted to be there. She didn’t look like she wanted to talk with him.

“Hello Kara,” Walter greeted her.

“Hi,” she responded quietly.

“Can I ask you something?” Walter inquired.

She hesitated, maybe knowing the question, and then said, “Yes.”

“Do you remember that day when I came home and you and Mara were sitting out back talking and you took off before I came back out?” he asked.

She nodded yes.

“What were you talking about?”

She was quiet for a moment.

“We were planning this. She was planning her death,” Kara confessed.

Walter knew she was being honest. Some unspoken part of him knew that’s what they’d been doing.

“Sometimes,” she started but then stopped.

“Sometimes what?” he forced the question.

“Sometimes I wish the sun wouldn’t come up in the morning,” she said.

Her eyes were cold and black as ink, the color of a cold, deep sea. She walked away, out of Mara’s yard, out of Walter’s life.

Walter’s phone vibrated and he pulled it out of his pocket. It was Jade.

“Hello,” he answered.

“This is hard for me,” she said, “It’s your fault that this happened. You could have stopped it. You could have gotten help for her. You were right there, all along, and saw everything.”

He just took it.

“You knew how bad it was. You could have told me or Sam, you could have made us understand,” and she was crying too hard to continue. She hung up.

Walter went back inside. He looked for Ringo, again, but didn’t find him. He had lovingly buried the other three little ones in her flower garden and had asked the neighbors to keep an eye out for Ringo, thinking he might be back soon.

Walter knew how fragile Mara had become; she would be almost shattered by some occurrence or disappointment that most people would take in stride. He figured that she might have accidentally driven over Shakti and then, upset about that, decided it was time to end her life. She might have put Shiva to sleep to spare Walter having to care for him. She also had her beliefs about spirit and energy and attachment and wouldn’t have thought that she was actually ending anything, just changing it. He had cleaned up her room before the crew from the mortuary had arrived; what was there was none of their concern. In addition to the usual assortment of sleeping pills and other drugs and booze, he had found a bowl of mostly eaten pudding, an empty vial of Seconal and one of Nembutal; he had no idea how she could have gotten them but he knew, from his own experience, how lethal they could be. What he couldn’t rationalize was what she had done to Zoë. Mara had no violence in her.

A few hours later, Sam appeared at the door from the breezeway to the kitchen.

“Hi,” Walter greeted him.

“Did you find Ringo?” he asked. He was done crying but his eyes were red and his face was puffy.

“No. He’s gone missing before so maybe he’ll turn up,” Walter said.

Sam stared at him but Walter could tell he wanted to say something more.

“Go ahead. What is it?” Walter asked.

“We want you out of the house by month end,” he said it loud, with force, meaning it. He enunciated every symbol, emphasized every word, short, firm, strong, and real.

“Wow,” thought Walter.

“Who is we?” Walter asked.

“Me and Jade,” was his reply.

Walter had done many bad things, mostly before he met Mara and her family and he had given away everything that he had once thought he owned; he had walked through many doors and now he knew that they were all permanently shut behind him.

That night, when he finally slept, he dreamed.

A roaring fire burned within the hearth of each room. It had burned before but never given off such heat. The carpet loosened, the backs of the furniture blistered, and the windows heated until the glass cracked. The light of the moon was shining in through the broken windows, making them look beautiful, each one unique like snowflakes. He saw Lizzy slumped in a chair, her face obscured through the plastic, suffocated by the helium in the bag. Next to her, in her chair near the bay window, was Mara, put to sleep by the pills. The air was full of carbon monoxide, thick and deadly. The door from the breezeway opened and Jade walked in. She wanted to be with her sister in front of the beautiful windows. “Don’t follow!” Walter heard his voice saying.

Walter called me later that day and told me, simply at first, “She walked on.”

“I’m so sorry. It sounds like she went in a peaceful way, though,” an Idiot said and then there was silence over the phone.

“It wasn’t a simple, quick death, one where they will say, “She didn’t suffer.” No, it was a killing that lasted a lifetime and hurt all the while it was going on,” he finally said.

“Yes, of course. I’m just so sorry,” was all I could say.

After we hung up, I cried. I don’t know if it was for Walter or for Mara, or for me. What I did know was that now, in a way, he was free and that he might be leaving.

– …Pause, and become present… –

Chapter 15 – Left Alone

The eye with which I see God is the Eye with which God sees me.
Meister Eckhart

Walter had been back from Mexico for almost two months and had bid farewell to Mara at her home in River City and then left to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to parts of the land that had raised him. He had loaded his Honda Civic with the items he wanted to keep himself comfortable; his sleeping bag and pad, a tent, some books, clothes for hot and cold, wet and dry conditions, some cooking and eating utensils, his camera and laptop computer, running gear, and a few talismans to serve as reminders. He took his sarong, of course, and would cover himself with it when he napped during his occasional stops at the rest areas along the interstate highways and back roads. On top of the dash, but without obstructing his vision, he’d Velcro mounted “Skully”, the blue and black porcelain skull with the glittering flowers and birds, which would serve to remind him of his death and its place in life. He also hoped it would remind him to keep his eyes on the road and the oncoming traffic. Hanging from his rear-view mirror was a leather strap with an aquamarine stone attached, a solid representation of the color of the sea, as well as a dragonfly constructed from small, colorful glass beads – just in case he came across any mosquitoes.

On the ring finger of his right hand, he wore the same ring that he’d worn for the past five years, silver and black with the Mayan calendar, and next to it he wore the one with the wings, crest, and tab. Both of the rings were flat and low-lying to the skin on his large fingers.

His younger brother, on seeing his strong hands, had once remarked, “Look at those meat hooks!”

At times, when Walter was driving, he’d look out through the windshield at the road and horizon and then, as his gaze drifted back in, he’d see those hands on the wheel and think that it was his father’s hands he was seeing, that his father was driving. The realization, a moment later, that they were his hands always came as a shock to him. His destinations, so far, had been Wyoming and Colorado, Utah and Nevada and the trip had been good for him. He had plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail for a month or so but, now, Walter stood in line on the campus of Dominican University in San Rafael, California. He knew that the people around him were “Spiritual Seekers” and he supposed it would be fair to place that label on his being, also.

He was looking the people over – they seemed to be good, gentle looking people, as most people on the path were.

He was listening to them and thought, “Is it that they understand that there is no true Awakening and they’ve chosen to attend satsang just to be better people, to feel good, and to surround themselves with community? “

He let that thought go, and then, “Most of them don’t really want to awaken.

There’s all of this head nodding, and maniacal laughter, and egoic conversation about energy, and bragging about other satsangs they have recently attended, and all of this bullshit just to make clear, to themselves and whomever is listening, how special they are.”

He did see, however, some quiet creatures in the midst of the carnival that, he thought, might honestly be hoping to awaken.

So, for Walter, it was back to the question, “Does one spiritually awaken when one is ready, regardless of focus, effort, and intention, or can one cause their own awakening through intention and autolysis?”

The California weather was slightly drizzly, that day, but the campus grounds were beautiful and the old stone building where the talk was given was cozy with wooden floors and comfortable seating. The man, whom he’d come to see, the one who gave the talk, was someone he once idolized but was now someone whom he accepted as a brother and respected for being wise, kind, and humorous – and awake. Through the morning session, Walter thought how the formal lecture, and then the conversations between the teacher and the audience, were good and rang true but he felt, in a sense, that he’d wasted his time and his money coming all this way to hear what he’d heard and read before and what he felt that he already understood.

“Maybe it is good to hear it as often as possible,” he thought.

All of the seats were filled. There were two people who were, obviously, a couple seated to his right and, on his left, there was a pleasantly attractive woman that he judged to be around his age and, to the left of her sat one of the most beautiful, older oriental women Walter had ever seen. During the lunch break, most participants left the hall but Walter sat, in silence, leaving only to hit the restroom and take a short walk outside. When the break began, the woman, two seats to the left of him, pulled her legs up under her long white gauze gown, lotus style, closed her eyes, and remained fixed that way for the hour of the break.

The people returned, refilling the auditorium, and the same individuals sat on each side of Walter.

The afternoon session began, and Walter, again was thinking, “This is just more of the same stuff I’ve read in his books and heard him say. I should just leave at the next break.”

Fifteen minutes later and without warning, the truth that was unspoken but carried in the silence between the words that the teacher spoke, pierced Walter’s heart, took his breath away as if he’d fallen to the ground and had the wind knocked out of him, and left him sobbing, trying to keep from disturbing those around him. His emotion passed to the woman on his left, and she accepted his handkerchief with gratitude. He sat through the remainder of the satsang, feeling emotionally drained, but in a good way, as if he’d had some tumor or sickness excised from his soul.

At roughly the same time, but 2,200 highway miles to the east, Jade was just driving into River City. The day before, she had a chemical face peal and, her skin pink, raw and covered with gel, her two Papillions safety-belted behind her in their car seats; she was driving home to see Sam and planned to spend the week in seclusion with Mara at the lake cottage, letting the skin on her face heal before having to interact with coworkers and the public.

At that same exact time, Mara had just sped home and hurriedly parked her car in the garage, shutting the door behind it, before running through the breezeway, locking the doors behind her as she went, then into her house, past the piles of new clothes still hooked with their tags, and into her bedroom closet to hide next to her hidden booze. Huddled there in the dark, amid the dust and cobwebs, on and between her shoes and boots and under her hanging clothes, she made a call to Jade.

Jade pressed the answer button on her steering wheel and said, “This is Jade,” and heard Mara whispering a scream but couldn’t, quite, understand what she was saying, although it was clear that Mara was frightened.

Instantaneously infected with that fear, Jade phoned Sam, who lived two blocks from Mara. He had been up all night and was trying to sleep but was awakened by her call and with a skill of the eldest child, which she’d refined over the years, Jade commanded him to go to his sister’s house immediately.

Just as Jade’s Lexus rounded the corner to Mara’s place, two county sheriff’s officers on a mission, pulled their separate cars into her driveway. Within minutes, the two burly policemen, red-gel-faced size one Jade, Sam with his hair in disarray and shirt on inside out, the growling Paps, and having been found in her hiding spot, handcuffed and crying Mara, were all clustered in the driveway; and that’s when the shouting began. Before it was over, Sam had been warned to back off and threatened with arrest, Mara, for the second time since returning from Mexico, was hauled off to the county jail, and Jade could not believe what had just happened. Back on the west coast, Walter had left the satsang, and spent a pleasant night in San Rafael, ordering a salad and carrot cake, to balance things, through room service before drifting off to a peaceful sleep that night.

The next morning, he checked out and drove south to Los Gatos, enjoying the drive and the scenery. In The Cats, he visited his childhood friend, Jou, and his German wife, Kati. They shared lunch together at an outside café, taking joy in one-another’s company, catching up on things passed and past. Walter was struck, again, at how similar Jou’s mannerisms were to his own but was also impressed by how calm Jou seemed and how truly peaceful he looked. It was a good visit.

After parting, Walter headed east, driving through the almond orchards and into the El Dorado National Forest, headed back to Colorado. Taking his time, enjoying the natural beauty, he stayed out of touch with family and friends, traveling on some of the smaller, less used roads, making his way to Creed, Colorado, in just over three days.
In Creed, he dined at a small, combination general store and restaurant, having a veggie sandwich and some good coffee. The waitress was a dark haired, athletic woman of indeterminate age; he couldn’t tell if she was younger or older than he was. She took his order, served him his food, and then took his money when he got up to leave.

“There’s a reason why you came in here,” she said to him.

“I was hungry,” he responded, with a laugh.

“I mean, there’s a reason why you came into THIS restaurant, rather than the one next door, or the one next to that, or one of those across the street,” she fired back, as if a little irritated.

Walter tried to always watch for the signs.

“Okay,” he said now attentive, open to what she might say.

“Can you stay until I get off work and then meet me out front?” she asked.

He paused, thinking about it. “Sure, what time?” he asked back.

They agreed on the when and the where and then he went for a walk, and then took a short drive up the canyon and back, before finding a bench in the small city park and planting himself there, alternating between reading and just sitting and being aware. At the appointed time, he walked the short distance to where she was standing, waiting for him, and then they hopped in his car and she directed him to the turnoff to a dirt road that took them to a good lookout point, above the little city, where he parked.

Moving from the car, they each found a dusty but comfortable place in the buffalo grass between the sage and pines and mica, and she began to talk, asking him questions and telling him things about her experience, as she tried to understand why he had triggered this fateful feeling in her. She continued asking questions and leading the conversation until he began to understand; she quieted and it was his turn to ask the questions and take the lead.

The sky was beginning to darken when they’d finished. They rose from where they sat and kissed.

He drove her back to where they’d met and they said, “Goodbye.”

He drove away, taking the night and the darkness with him as he passed out of those canyons and pointed the Civic back towards River City, thinking to himself, “a fortiori.”

The next morning, when the sun had arrived high in the sky and Walter had taken time to wash his face, fuel the car, and purchase a waxy paper cup of coffee in a drive-thru at a chain restaurant, he phoned Mara. It had been a week, at least, since they’d spoken.

The phone rang and a voice answered, “Hello.”

It was Jade. “I’m sorry. I thought I was calling Mara,” he apologized.

“Did she call you?” Jade asked.

“What do you mean? She’s called me but it’s been awhile,” he answered.

“Oh, so you don’t know,” she proclaimed; and then she proceeded to tell him the story of Mara’s repeated shoplifting, her arrest, the mess that her house was, the mess that her life was, and that she was still in jail but would be making bail today.

He told her how he’d caught Mara stealing in Mexico, and how it had been the final straw.

There was a pause from Jade, and then, “YOU LIED TO ME!”

“What do you mean” he asked, totally confused, trying to think where he might have.

“You told me everything was okay. That she was doing fine. You knew about this and you didn’t tell me,” was her reply, and then, “YOU LIED TO ME!” again.

It took Walter three more days to get back to River City and, by that time, Jade’s face had healed and she had returned to her home, her job, and her life. Over the objection of his lover and the ensuing verbal battle between that woman and Jade, a battle in which Jade had prevailed, Sam bailed Mara out of jail for the second time that summer. Walter arrived back in Michigan, finding Mara at the lake cottage where she was taking refuge from both embarrassment and temptation. Their reuniting was, understandably, emotional and meaningful. To Walter, the course of his path had now become clear. Days passed. The weather was good for running, and Mara and he put as many miles under their feet as they could, running the paved or gravel and dirt roads that connected the chain of lakes around the cottage. They’d spend their other hours on the water or sitting together on the balcony overlooking the water, talking and just being.

One morning, when he started out the door to run, Mara had asked him, “Do you want white or black?”

She was making him a “special” friendship bracelet, with the primary beads being made from stone and carved in the shape and detail of skulls so as to remind him, again and in another way, of his death and its place in his life.

“Oh, they’re both beautiful. It’s tough to decide but I think I’ll choose the black.”

“Even black men have white skulls,” was all she said as she turned back to her work and let him leave for his run.

He ran south from the driveway of the cottage, down the hill of the paved street named Gordon, through the dead spot where it was always hot and where there was no breeze as the road bridged the channel between Pickerel Lake and Kimball. He pushed up the first hill of the run then turned, at three-quarters of a mile, on to Pickeral Lane, heading east between the lake cottages, past the boat launch and privy, up the incline and then down again and then back up to Little Switzerland, the local resort. Passing a cottage, he was startled and lurched sideways away from the noise, as someone unseen started a lawnmower in his or her garden shed. He ran by the unchained Bouvier des Flandres that he always saw, seeming passive if not friendly, taking care to pass on the opposite side of the road and keep aware.

Off of Pickerel, at just over two miles he turned left, up the paved shoulder of Centerline and ran another half-mile or so to the turnoff to Emerald and Sylvan Lakes, where the road turned to dirt and gravel and the surroundings became more enjoyable with the cottages being fewer and the space between greater. Deer flies buzzed around his head and, now and then, one got him on his back or through his running cap on the top of his head. He ran the loop that, in spots, turned to sand near the water, passing a few people who were walking, coming up behind them and coughing or breathing loudly to alert them of his presence, not wanting to startle them. He saw no other runners but spotted running shoe prints, not his or Mara’s, in the sand.

At 6 ½ miles he hit the pavement again and turned right, heading up the first part of what was mostly an uphill run, as Centerline Road became 48th Street. It was another mile, nearly two, and a turn before cresting the hill and coming back to the driveway of the cottage.

He walked down the driveway and, knowing the front door would be locked, walked around the side of the building and took the ivy covered wooden steps up to the balcony.

He could see Mara a short distance out on the water; sitting in the 11-ft aluminum boat he’d bought her that first summer. She’d named it “Candy” after one she’d seen, and become fond of, on a trip they’d taken to the Dominican Republic.

He sat on the wooden bench that was backed against the cedar-sided wall of the cottage. The sweat, from his run, was running off of his body. He leaned forward, letting the drops fall from the brim of his running cap to a gap between deck boards on the balcony beneath him. He counted the drops several times and came up with an average of 180 per minute. He kept his head, his hat, and the drops positioned so that they remained in one spot, filling the gap between boards above a truss that supported them; until he could hear the water, having filled the dry wood and the gap, make a splashing sound. He looked at his shoes, he was wearing his Mexico shoes today, the New Balance 769’s that were durable and supportive but, sometimes, took his toenails. He used Vaseline to prevent blisters and felt fine. His socks were the new, synthetic running socks with no seams. He watched the muscles in his right calf, and then his left, twitch as they always did from the damage in his spine. He knew that when he eventually took off his shoes and socks, he’d see the same twitching in his feet. His running shorts, blacker now, soaked with sweat, clung to his thighs and crotch, his shirt to his belly and arms.

Finally, he lifted his head and looked to the left arm of the bench.

Hanging there, in anticipation of his return from the run, was the black-skulled bracelet she’d made for him. Strung between each carved skull was an uncarved stone of another color and texture that balanced the skulls beautifully. Between the black obsidian skulls she had strung Aquamarine, Amethyst, Amber, Citrine, and Calcite. He took the bracelet from the wooden arm of the bench and pulled it over his left hand to the flesh arm of his body and felt a rush of energy, as if, for just a moment, electricity was running through his wrist, and then it settled.

There was a nearly empty blue plastic glass on the table next to the bench. He took it and smelled it and knew that she’d been drinking already.

He raised his head and looked out at the shimmering lake that was reflecting the morning sun. He could see and hear Mara, out on the water, head bent to her cell phone, talking through her tears.

“Probably to Jade,” he thought.

He could see the game of Mute Swans, white with their black eyes and orange bills, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen; it was seventeen that he counted on the water around her that day. In the background far behind her, he saw a rainbow.

There was no easy way for him to tell me the rest of his story.

“Just tell me,” I said.

Chapter 14 – Mexico Style

“What if I should die?” he asked. “If you die, just die,” came the response.
Peter Matthiessen

Mara, Jade, and Walter each held the same belief about life, that it was short, but they applied that belief in different ways.

For Mara, that recognition did nothing to offset her pain and on as many days as not, she wished that life was even shorter.

She’d say to Walter, “You’ll be okay. You know what this is all about anyway. You know it’s all just an illusion. You know there is no meaning. I can’t do this anymore.”

Walter would tell her that he knew there was a part of her that wanted to die but killing that part didn’t require killing all of her. He’d tell her that he knew she was in pain.

“Just try to hang in there, for me. I believe in you. I believe that someday you will be walking on a beach or a mountain trail, happy and healthy,” he’d say, “I’ll be there with you and we’ll talk about everything you’ve been through and you’ll be happy that you didn’t end it.”

Walter came home one day to find Mara out back on the patio under the corkscrew willow, sitting and talking with a friend. Behind them, under the tree and up against the bedroom wall, was one of her amazing shade gardens filled with miniature magical plants.

Walter stepped out and said, “Hello.”

They looked guilty, as if caught in the act doing something secret and wrong. He went in and changed to more comfortable clothes, expecting to join them for conversation. When he returned, the friend was gone, having gotten up quickly and left in the brief time he was inside. Walter asked Mara what that was all about.

“Nothing,” she said.

They talked into the evening until her medicine finally kicked in and she slept.

For Jade, the recognition of life’s moderation meant that she didn’t want to waste time with unnecessary feelings, and talk, and drama. She wanted to do things, to keep busy, to accomplish. She appreciated quality and wanted fine things around her. She also wanted to be a good person and to do things the right way and, in that system, she knew that the one thing she didn’t want to do, the one thing she could never do, was intentionally, knowingly hurt Mara. She loved Mara with the love that she couldn’t acknowledge for herself. The problem was, the part of her that “felt” could only held in abeyance for so long.

Walter had once come in and found Jade sitting and crying in Mara’s living room. With Sam, the three siblings had been talking about their father and the life he’d had as an orphan behind the iron curtain. Jade couldn’t contain the anguish she felt for her father. As she sat there sobbing, Mara and Sam stood, distant and numb, just watching her. Walter walked to her and put his arms around her.

Walter realized that he had been assisting in life’s temperance, if not outright then through his behaviors; for years he had been trying to kill himself. He believed that his chronic depression was as much a choice as not and that his mind had chosen to kill his body slowly and quietly – until he met Mara. When Walter decided to really live, he realized, in a different way what “Life is short” meant to him. He decided that as often as he could he would be kind. He also decided that if he felt deeply about someone, he would tell them because he knew that, in an instant, he or that person could be gone without the object of his feelings knowing what he felt. He knew, from experience, that the expression of one person’s feelings could markedly change the experience of another person. So, when Walter met Mara and fell in love with her, and then met Jade and fell in love with her, he could only be honest with both of them about what he felt. His commitment, as a companion, was to Mara, but he was also committed to Jade.

Jade was training for a marathon when her father suffered a stroke and returned to his family. She came home to visit him and asked Walter to run with her while she was home, so that she could continue training for the race. While they were running, he asked her what she thought about on her long runs.
“My breathing, I guess,” was her response.

“On my long runs, I mostly think about you,” was what he said inside his head, but not to her.

They were driving from the lot where he’d parked his car near the running trails, and they talked about her old boyfriends, about running, about her father, brother and sister, about her dogs and job. She was used to his expressions of love for her but still bothered by it. He loved her unconditionally. She didn’t understand that he didn’t need anything from her.

“What if Mara heard you say that?” she asked.

“She knows that I love you,” he said.

“WHAT! WHAT! Are you crazy?” Walter had a friend, long before this story, who told him, “The female river runs deep in you.”

That’s important to understand as true in trying to know Walter. Our hero didn’t see it as it happened, but his problems resulted from two dynamics. The more Mara disappeared into the Void, the less she was available to him, and the more she suffered, the more he feared that she would soon die and he couldn’t bear the thought of that pain, that suffering. His feelings for Mara only deepened as she suffered but, to protect himself, he unconsciously pulled parts of himself back and away from her and, in order to balance his soul and stay sane, he placed those feelings somewhere else. Jade became the object of those projections. It made sense, at the start. Jade was someone he would have been with under different circumstances and someone he truly did love. She was safe because when he met her she was in a successful long-term relationship and that coupling looked to be rock solid and was expected to survive. There would be no risk of Jade ever returning, let alone acting, on those feelings.

It was only a few months before Mara departed for Mexico that Jade discovered that her husband was having an intimate relationship with an old classmate who had Friended him on Facebook. The discovery of that betrayal, as well as finding some pornographic pictures on their desktop computer at home, was enough for Jade to question her reality, realize that she needed some space from the person she thought would always be there for her, and buy him a one way airline ticket, drive him to the airport, and ship him back to his mother. Needless to say, Jade was heartbroken as well as stressed. During this period of uncertainty and isolation, feeling somewhat like a fool and off balance, Jade began reaching out to her sister more than she had in years. The sisters began having frequent phone conversations but Jade, more often than Mara, did the dialing. Mara was in her downward spiral, getting closer and closer to the edge, and usually the best she could do was to just listen as her sister poured her heart out, late at night, over the phone. Whatever belief Mara held about the cruelty of life was only further confirmed by hearing Jade’s pain. Mara increased her sedation, numbing herself with the pills and the booze and would often be unconscious by early evening.

Jade’s troubled heart arched, and as it approached the zenith of its pain, she would reach out to her sister and call her late at night. Mara would often be unconscious to the ringing of her phone. Jade’s soul was torn and she couldn’t sleep. Mara’s soul bled so she quieted herself with sleep. Often, when Mara didn’t answer, Jade would dial Walter’s number and he would answer, no matter the time or the circumstances.

“Hi, it’s Jade. Am I bothering you,” her soft voice would come over the airwaves.

“No, Sweetie, you’re not. Are you okay?” he would ask.

“Is Mara okay? I tried calling her but she didn’t answer.”

“She had a rough day but she’s sleeping. How are you doing?” and they would talk for hours.

Walter saw in her what she couldn’t see in herself. He’d tell her that she was beautiful. He’d tell her that she deserved to be loved. He’d tell her that things would all work out for her, that he had faith in her and in life. All he wanted for her was for her to be okay. He started sending her energy whenever thoughts of her drifted up like whisks of smoke from the ground of his mind. Back then, each time he told her he loved her, she cried. She thanked him for caring.

She wanted to know why, “Why won’t he talk? Why did he do this?” Walter would tell her his thoughts. He’d tell her of his experiences and how he thought they might apply to her situation.

“Why would he look at porn but not at me?” she thought, but she knew the answer, she knew how ugly she was.

He told her, “Who knows, you might go through this hard time and come back together and have the best marriage anyone ever had.”

Before Walter and Mara left for Mexico, Jade phoned Walter and told him that she’d been with her counselor, working on her marriage and on herself, and that they needed to talk.

He said, “Okay, go ahead.”

She told Walter that he didn’t love her, that he couldn’t love her, that he didn’t know her. She told him that this was a classic circumstance where a man was attracted to a vulnerable woman was going through a rough time. She told him that, even if he did love her, his telling her was inappropriate. She didn’t want to talk with him anymore.

Weeks later in Playacar, Walter and Mara had rented a house near one owned by the second richest man in Mexico. Each day, after their running, they would set up their chairs on the beach in front of his house. Walter would peal two oranges and share them with Mara. They would each drink one beer, and then stare at the water for hours. They’d spent the winter and early spring reconstructing their bodies and deconstructing their relationship. It was the winter but nearing springtime and while the change of seasons seemed to make little difference to the natural beauty that surrounded them, or to the agouti, pacas, wild cats, squirrels and birds, it did change Walter and Mara’s awareness that their time in this particular paradise would be drawing to a close. Each morning, as the earth revolved and the yellow dwarf that sits at the center of our solar system, it would seemingly rise up over the Caribbean Sea and draw out those who worshiped its power and its glory. The visitors from Canada, Europe, Russia, and the U.S. would line the beach from the southern boundary of the village to where the sand stopped and the sharp coral coastline began.

Walter remembered how his heart almost broke, that first morning, when Mara had agreed to try to run the mile from the rock to the pier and back. On her small frame, she was carrying an extra thirty pounds of weight put on from the daily bottle of wine and the uncounted bottles of vodka she had consumed over the past year. When they’d left the gray north, her blood sugar and pressure had been dangerously high and her cholesterol was out of control. As they moved, Walter watched for any sign that she might be coming into acute distress. She ran, never once looking at him as he jogged along beside her, never stopping, her little arms pumping with the effort, a frightened look on her face, and she made it. After that, she had taken to the running with a passion and before they left the country, she was running longer and farther and more frequently than he. She dropped the weight and began to take a new pride in her body. This extended trip had been Walter’s plan to try to save her and her apparent love of running gave him hope. The running became their shared habit.

Rolling from the small wooden framed bed that they shared, at 5:30 or sometimes 4:30, and running the beach before the rising of the sun and the people, became their habit. Walter would awaken before the alarm, rise and piss, then move to the kitchen and turn on the coffee pot before laying on his sarong on the hall floor and putting his legs up the wall. Mara, hearing his movement, would rise and pee and then step over him on her way to the coffee and then outside for a smoke while the Tortie cat, from next door, stopped by for breakfast. Mara would take off for the beach, through the darkness, while Walter spent fifteen minutes in meditation before following. The path they took would start from the green moss covered rock that lay mostly buried in the sand in front of the house they’d rented, to the pier that split the beach in two at the village, and then back past that starting point and on to the coral walls two miles distant at the southern end of the khaki colored sand and then back again. She ran barefoot on the packed sand near the surf and suffered, but didn’t mind, glass and shell cuts to her feet and toes. Walter ran in shoes, farther up the slope in deep, soft sand that tested his endurance.

They’d pass, on the beach, but not speak.
: 00, start at moss covered rock
: 09, touched pier
: 39, passed Plastic Man
: 42, passed her, she’s beautiful
: 46, at far wall, the sun’s coming up
1: 15, back at the moss covered rock
1: 35, another lap to the pier, other runners out
1: 55, another lap to the pier, done with Fase Uno

As he ran, he’d see plastic glasses, beer bottles, shoes, sunglasses, syringes, condom wrappers, air filters, empty tubes, ropes, broken plastic buckets, bottle caps, sticks, logs, coconuts, straws, shells, rocks, dog turds, sand shovels and buckets, cushions, chair parts, sea weed, and nuts. He’d see her bare footprints, the only ones in the sand at that hour. He’d see his shoe prints on the laps back, a reverse horseshoe; maritime markers out in the water, ropes strung from the shore to anchors in the surf, marking the edge of each resort. Finding his running path was like a golfer reading the lie of the greens.

Some mornings she, or they, would run it twice; on the second run weaving in and out between the flesh obstacles standing unaware in their way, the beach no longer virgin and untouched, now trampled and marked by the tourists. At the end of each run he’d kick off his shoes and they’d wade into the powder blue saltwater that had become their shared refuge. It was even more so that at these moments they didn’t have to speak.

Out over the water, they could see the lights and outline of buildings on Cozumel. Sometimes they ran far enough to run all the way to that island.

As Walter ran, he listened to his body, hearing what it needed, each part talking back, his mind telling each part that he appreciated it, loved it, giving each part encouragement and attention. When his body said it needed a day’s rest, he gave it. She never rested.

She still had her daily fix of alcohol; she replaced the vodka with beer and allowed herself one glass of red wine, and she continued to self-medicate with the plethora of pills that he couldn’t keep track of but she seemed to have found a balance that fit her. It was her occasional missteps, an accidental fire in the kitchen, the slurring of her words, and once or twice screaming at him when she became unintentionally drunk, that kept him concerned that her balance might be just a temporary improvement.

They had their U.S. cell phones, their Mexican cell phones, Skype and Vonage but it was still a challenge to keep in touch with Jade during their time in Mexico. At least weekly, they would walk into the village, sit outside the cafe that had better Internet service, and Mara would make contact with Jade. Walther waited quietly in the background during these talks. It was a difficult time for Jade and Mara’s being gone pulled out one important leg of support, perhaps the most important.

“Do you think there’s a chance you two will get back together?” Mara would ask.

Slowly, “I don’t think so,” Jade would reply.

“This is hard but you’ll find someone else.”

“No one will think I’m attractive,” Jade would say.

Mara would think she said that because of her breasts. Jade said that because in her mind she knew that she had never been attractive.

The girls talked about Jade coming down, because she really needed a break, but she wasn’t sure she could get the time off, even though she had four weeks of vacation time coming to her; she finally decided she could. She had trouble getting a passport and then had it expedited. She had 500,000 frequent flier miles but couldn’t get a good flight. She was going to stay at their rental until Mara told her they’d seen a cockroach and she freaked. Mara gave her computer links to multiple nearby resorts but she had trouble choosing one. She never made the trip but was never far from their thoughts. Mara and Walter sat on the beach and talked about her, ate oranges, drank beer, swam and ran. On one of their frequent walks into town, they had visited a store in which cut stones and coral, and other items for jewelry making were sold. Walter stood in one spot, watching Mara roam around the isles, picking up pieces, inspecting them, and then putting them back. The eye, or the mind, sees what the eye wants to see and, for a moment, Walter thought he saw Mara drop a strand of coral into the Mexican Indian bag she had hanging from her shoulder. Mara had sufficient money as well as a bounty of supplies already and he knew her to be a good and honest person. He chastised himself, thinking he was mistaken. A few days later, on a similar trip, he had the same strange perception and, once again, he shook it off as false.

He asked her, “You didn’t put something in your bag without paying, did you?”

“No,” came her reply, with a laugh.

“I’m sorry. I just had a weird feeling,” he apologized.

It was the third event, which he witnessed, that he could no longer ignore. She took a strand of large turquoise pieces from the wall of a store and rushed, practically ran, from the store.

He followed he and challenged her and said, “Take those back!”

She threw the string of polished stones into the gutter between the sidewalk and the building and walked rapidly away.

Walter, at first, wanted not to believe it. A new problem…a new drama…a new reason not to be with her. Their verbal fights began; arguments about the drinking, the stealing, the pills. He told that he’d been through this before and that, though he loved her, he couldn’t go through this again. He talked to her about getting caught, there, in Mexico. How it might mean prison but would certainly mean deportation, the end of their sojourn, and probably a prohibition from her re-entry into Mexico. She cried. She apologized. She knew it was wrong and didn’t understand why she had done it; it was just an impulse. They made up and he believed her and forgave her. In a new store, the next day, standing right in front of him with her back to him, she took down a bracelet and stuffed it into her pocket. She turned and saw Walter, shocked. She put the bracelet back and they walked away, he in front of her, silent and defeated.

The next day, as he sat on the beach staring out over the water, Walter realized, perhaps for the first time, that as much as he loved Mara and wanted a good life for her, he had to love himself first, and have his own good life. His heart broke yet understood what had just happened.

It was then that he resolved to leave her upon their return to Michigan.

That was the day that all the wild cats sat facing north-by-northeast and Mara put the kettle bell in her backpack to go for a walk in the sand.

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.