March 2006

Walter - Part IV

Breathe...

It’s a funny thing how the air can tell you where you are.

That was the first thing that Walter started to notice on his journey back home. On the way to the coast, he hadn’t noticed it, but as he sat in the back of the empty railcar the one thing that he noticed with absolute certainty was the change of the air.

On the coast, on the edge of the ocean, the air has warmth to it. There is an organic feel to what you take into your lungs. You can feel the life around you. But as you move up and away from the water, the air begins to tighten. It dries out and trades in its warmth for something else. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly not a good one.

That’s the one thought that Walter had for his whole trip.

“This might not be a bad thing, but it probably isn’t good.”

Walter knew he had to go home. The accident in the bar that night had more or less sealed that fate, and Walter would never betray the captain’s kindness and decency so he found himself with little choices left.

So onto the train again. In the dead of night again. Walter had learned the hard way on his way out to the coast that if the rail guards caught you they would much rather deal their own brand of justice than bother with the finer points of the law.

While on the way out, the rail guards had contented themselves with beatings and the taking of whatever money the transients on the train might have had on them, it was on his way back home that he would see the full extent of their capacity for cruelty.

While Walter had been lucky enough to have never fallen victim to their own particular version of justice, on his journey from the west he would see another man like himself beaten for the better part of an hour by rail guards with nothing better to do.

They had left him on the train when they were done. Walter had watched the whole thing from behind some empty crates being shipped back to the ports to be filled again. Back then, they used to send hollow crates back from the coast instead of simply sending empty trains. While these crates may have made economic sense for those with the money to buy them, they also provided excellent hiding places for those with little else to do but hide. Walter had brought a blanket to keep himself warm, and the muffled grayness of the woolen blanket only served to help him further disappear.

In later years, Walter would like to tell himself that he would have stepped in had the odds been a little better. But there were after all six of them, and Walter was just one.

They always hunted in packs like that, strength in numbers and that sort of justification. It’s easier to beat on someone who doesn’t have as many friends as you might have gathered yourself.

But Walter didn’t step in. And when the guards were done with their particular target audience of the evening, their victim barely looked human anymore.

Metal wrapped in a rubber covering still does a lot of damage, and the guards, while being less than acceptable human beings in more than a couple of ways, could not be faulted for their lack of zeal with their batons.

Walter found that he couldn’t move past the safety of his crate, even when the train was well under way and the guards were heading home to now beat their spouses.

Who of course, deserved it as well.

Walters guilt didn’t allow him to move forward to try to help the man, but at the same time, his better nature refused to simply let him look away.

So Walter watched him die.

He watched as the man coughed and sputtered blood for a what seemed like an eternity, and he watched as the man slowly drowned in the same red fluids that only hours earlier kept him alive.

The irony was not lost on Walter.

As I have said before, very little was.

At the next stop, a few weary rail workers came onto the car and dragged the mans body off. Again, Walter did not move.

It was clear that the rail workers had been told to be there, and that meant that they knew, at least on some level, what had happened. But one man is another’s garbage, to paraphrase, and the rail workers knew that they were there to clean up.

And in time the air changed again.

Walter sat behind that crate, huddled up in his blanket. He huddled there right up until the train pulled into the station.

The train had stopped at stations many times before then, but at this station, Walter knew that he was home.

He could smell it in the air.

Home

Walter was glad to sneak his way off of that train car. While the rail workers had taken the body of the man, the coppery smell of his blood had well seeped it’s way into the old wood of the rail car. When the train had crossed the mountains and made it’s way back to the prairies, It had traded the biting cold of the mountains for the fetid heat of the plains. Walter had spent the better part of six hours in what was essentially an oven and it had indeed cooked.

So it came to pass that Walter greeted his town the same way that he left it, by falling to his knees and emptying his stomach.

Full circle and all of that.

And then some…

Walter made his way to downtown and found after wandering around getting his bearings, he managed to find himself lodging at what was to him a new hotel. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was one of the more recent buildings and it had a diner/tavern on the main floor and more importantly a room only cost a dollar a day.

Which was pretty good, even back then.

It took Walter a while to find his footing. Truth be told, the first few weeks back in the town were spent in more or less a drunken stupor. It took him almost a full two weeks before he found the stomach to visit his mothers grave and leave some flowers that he had reluctantly picked on the way.

The marker wasn’t much, a little white rock with her name and the dates of her entry and exit to this world crudely carved on it.

Walter couldn’t help but find himself wondering which of the men that had used her had felt enough guilt to bother with the chisel work, but he was glad in a sad way that someone had. He had, after all left as soon as he could.

Walter stood there for a long time. The prairie wind that day was warm enough to not rush him off right away.

He was a little surprised at the anticlimactic nature of the whole business. He had expected something of an epiphany coming to his mothers final and well deserved resting place, but instead, he just found his mothers final and well deserved resting place.

There are rarely answers to be found at the graves of those that we love. Truth is, more often than not, if we allow our imaginations to wander, we find ourselves wondering more than we might have expected.

And wondering is exactly what Walter found himself doing, not so much at the “what if’s” of his mothers life, but rather at all of the things of her life that he didn’t and never would know.

All at once, all of the details of her life that she had taken to her grave with her, the moments of her childhood that he would never know began to surround Walter. The moments that his mother had secretly cherished, the ones that she had used to carry herself through the moments where she had rendered herself to nothing more than meat to ensure her survival, these were the moments that Walter found himself wondering on.

For her to have survived the ugliness she became for so long, she must have been able to hold onto something beautiful to carry her. It didn’t carry her forever, but there had to have been a reason there for a time.

And Walter, for the first time, began to face the fact that the beauty that might have carried his mother could have been him.

He lingered there for something more than an hour. One couldn’t say if it was significantly more or less, but it was around there. Time passes in a strange way when you deal with death. All of his cards are generally hidden, and just because he plays them all doesn’t mean that you get any sort of clarity from things.

After that hour or so, all of the questions that had started to trickle up to Walter started to ring a little too unanswered and the warm prairie wind began to tell him that he wouldn’t find anything more like answers on that day.

So Walter walked back to the hotel and began to try and figure out what to do next.

As things would have it, what Walter would do next not only would bring him the greatest joy in his life, but the greatest sorrow as well.

Green Thumb

After spending a week or so in the hotel pondering exactly what to do, Walter found that his cash supply would not be holding out much longer. Whether or not he wanted to, Walter was going to have to find himself a job.

At that time, all that Walter knew how to do was fishing on the open sea, try to kill Germans and get wounded, so his options were limited.

Not much of a market for killing Germans on the prairies.

Or fishing for that matter.

So Walter became a gardener of sorts.

Initially, it started out as Walter simply taking a caretakers job at the local country club.

Rich people like to look at flowers that they have paid a great deal of money to be around, and Walter answered a job in the paper when the club was looking for a groundskeeper. It was honest work, and more importantly, it allowed Walter the time to think on what his life had become without a great deal of interruption.

It seemed that Walter had quite the gift though. He was able to bring greenery to places where previous caretakers had only been able to arrange rock gardens.

Pretty rock gardens, but rock gardens nonetheless.

This did not go unnoticed by the patrons of said social club.

After only a few months, Walter found that his services were very much in demand.

Outside of the club, his private contracts with the elite of the town had grown in number so much that he found himself having to choose between the low paying hours at the club and the lucrative hours trimming the gardens of the towns better class.

Walter stuck with the club for as long as he could, after all, the manager had given him a chance when he had no experience other than killing Germans.

But when even the manager began to suggest that Walter had the demand and the money to start his own business and that he might be better off doing so, Walter took his advice and did just that.

Beginnings, Again...

So Walter Began.

And in his beginning, Walter made his way from home to home and job to job with a cart that he had made from wheels from those little wheeled things that rich people put their golf clubs in and other spare parts that he had found from here and there. It was an awkward wagon, made mostly of plywood and good intentions, but it did the job for Walter and it carried all of his tools, so what more could one really ask?

And so for a time, Walter found contentment in the dirt and the green of the wealthy.

Quite a long time, actually.

Walter watched the world turn around him. He watched it with the kind of disinterested silence that one has when they know that something is going on, but they aren’t to sure as to what it is and they really don’t want to take to much notice of it on the odd chance that it might decide to take notice of them in return.

It was a system, and it worked quite well for Walter.

After a few years of wheeling about his little wagon, Walter lucked himself on the deal of a lifetime. One of his clients offered Walter a reasonably new (at the time) pickup truck.

He got the truck for a song.

Walter knew very well that the previous owner of the truck only parted with it for such a bargain basement price because Walter walking his cart up their driveway twice a week embarrassed the family.

The lady of the house was what passed for a very socially conscious woman at the time, and while she valued Walters’s green thumb for what it did to her lawn and garden, she could only stand the sight of the plywood wagon, and even worse what her imagination told her that her neighbours must think, for so long.

So Walter found himself being offered the deal of the year, if not a lifetime, and he was certainly smart enough to take advantage of it.

So not entirely by accident, Walter began to become something, if only slightly more, than a poor gardener with a gift for greenery. The acquisition of the truck meant not only that Walter had garnered some degree of respectability, but also that he could now expand on his little empire and take on more clients.

And so it came to pass that one day Walter found himself staring down the mess that was the Farmington’s rose bushes.

They were, without question, an unmitigated disaster.

The rose bushes had once been the prize-winning roses of Mrs. Farmington, but since her quiet death from the business end of a rather potent stroke, Mr. Farmington had let the rose bushes go to pot. It was through a reference from one of Walters other clients that the Farmington’s daughter Anne had sought Walter out on the telephone in order to try and bring some beauty back into her father’s life.

When the phone rang in, Walter had been sitting in an old rocking chair that he had bought from the second hand store in town for fifty cents.

In the time that Walter wasn’t toiling away in the dirt of the better half’s money, he liked to spend his time listening to Charles Mingus and Nina Simone records.

On that particular afternoon, Walter was sitting listening to Pithecanthropus Erectus just settling in for a late afternoon that, with the help of a few strong spirits, would hopefully turn into an evening of fine music and a slightly spinning head when the bell of the phone cut through the air.

Walter reached for the receiver with the reluctance that comes when you know that your grandiose plans have been completely buggered with and as much as you might like, not answering the phone won’t save them.

So he was a little bitter when after the third ring he finally brought himself to bring the ebony handle to his ear and say “Hello”.

While Walter was prepared to throw the usual nonchalance with a thinly veiled tone of respect due to class, the voice on the other end made him sit up straight and adjust his shirt, even though there was no one who could see.

Not because he had to, but because he felt that he should.

Anne could not have been more perfectly mannered. She told Walter that she had it on good authority that if her mothers rose bushes could be resurrected, he was the man to bring them back to their previous glory. Anne was abundantly clear that the saving of the rose bushes was to serve as part of a birthday present for her father, nothing more, and nothing less.

Her father had spent the better part of the year locked away in the room that he had shared with his wife, save brief outings for the occasional dinner or lunch, and Anne was desperate to bring him back into the world that he had left behind. She felt that if she could show him that the rose bushes had continued, he might be able to see that his wife’s legacy had not been wasted and that he might bring himself back into the land of the living.

No small order for a gardener.

But the voice…

My God, the voice of the girl…

Walter took the job with an awkward smile on his face, and while he would tell himself that it was mostly because he could always use the extra money, he also had to admit to himself that it was in no small part due to the fact that while he had never met Anne in his years around town, he found himself completely captivated by her voice.

That voice.

And so, the next day, Walter and his pick up truck shuddered their way up the Farmington’s driveway and into the world that Walter had so long separated himself from.

Walter had promised himself that he would not allow the juvenile flickerings of emotion to get in the way of the business at hand. He told himself over and over again that he wouldn’t let that voice become attached to anything more than a few ignored rose bushes and at most another source of income.

But as Walter stared at the disheveled mess that had become Mrs. Farmington’s prize winning roses, he couldn’t help but be completely taken by what came sweeping around the corner of the old brick house to instruct him on exactly what was to be done.

Because what came sweeping was Anne.

And as soon as Walter saw the face to which he could attach the face to the voice that had taken him away from his old jazz records, he knew that he was done for.

And in truth, he was.

But I’ll get to that.