Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Wisdom of Charlie Berg

By Fred Owens

This is a continuation of the journey of Jimmy and Hitch to the Frog Hospital. It takes place in LaConner, in July of 1982.

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.”
― from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Jimmy and Hitch left the wedding in Pioneer Park and came down the hill to South First Street, right there by Clayton James’s studio.

Jimmy had a sense of deep well-being as he came upon South Fourth Street. “This very spot,” he said to Hitch, “is the heart and soul of LaConner. There is some kind of magic in this spot, right here on this little street. It’s river magic. There are underground channels of water here. It just seems so mystical and so good and right.”

Jimmy felt so good that he had a troubling thought.

“Hitch, we’re all going to die,” Jimmy said.

“Nope, Swinomish people don’t ever die. We’ve always been here,” Hitch said.

“We’re all gonna die,” Jimmy said. “Just look up.”

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” Hitch said.

“No, look at Mount Baker. See? Over there. It’s a volcano and it’s going to explode and send a wall of mud and ice racing down the valley at 60 miles an hour and we’re all going to die,” Jimmy said.

“Not me,” Hitch said, “I have bird friends. The swallows will come and save me. When the mud flows, I will just fly away.””

“Okay, but I gotta think on this,” Jimmy said. “We could ask Clayton James….”

“Not Clay Man, he’s too happy,” Hitch said.

“Okay, we can ask Charlie instead,” Jimmy said. So they walked a little further to Charlie Berg’s house. Charlie was in the front yard dismantling a 1957 DeSoto. The DeSoto had a two-tone paint job. The body was aquamarine blue, and the roof was candy-copper-red.

“Old Man, Owl Man, Charlie Berg,” Hitch cried out by way of greeting. “Are we all gonna die?”

“Yes,” Charlie said. “We live under a volcano and we’re all going to die. That’s why I keep these lawn chairs in the front yard. This is how I figure it – when she blows, the mud and ice come racing down the valley, first Concrete, then Lyman, Hamilton, Sedro-Woolley, one town after another all swallowed up, cows flung about like matchsticks, sirens blasting, people racing around, but not me – when I see that mud flow coming at LaConner I just sets me down in this lawn chair and watch the show. The End. We go out with a bang. It will be like the last surfer riding the biggest wave.”

Charlie had a brain the size of Buckminster Fuller and a milky cow-eyed kind of look on his face – that comes from seeing in all four directions, as he explained it – “I can see things in a vision, so I try never to focus. I let the rainbow dance and I can see all the colors.”

Charlie was dismantling the DeSoto. “I’m going to compost the entire car. I will lay out the fender panels in the sun, and these flocks of crows will come and chip off the paint, and then the metal will slowly rust and melt into the ground. Then blackberries will eventually consume the engine block. It will take a few hundred years to compost a DeSoto, so I better get started right away.”

“That makes sense,” Jimmy said, “but I think we’ll all be dead by then. Except Hitch.”

“After you guys die, I’m coming to take the car,” Hitch said.

Charlie’s house was the hippie capital of South LaConner, not the house itself, but the long chicken coop by the side. When you got to town with a backpack, you flaked out in Charlie’s chicken coop. You could stay there for a while until whatever happened next. Truman and Mary had the house before Charlie took it over. Truman played the violin and Mary was crazy. Mary slept with a lot of guys and Truman got mad about that and he couldn’t play nice songs on the violin anymore, so they split up. That’s when Charlie and his wife moved in. She made infused herbal vinegars on the back porch and Charlie studied recycling from Zell Young in Mount Vernon, who was a legend in that field. Somehow they made living and Charlie’s projects mushroomed all over the lot.

Jimmy and Hitch left – they still wanted to get some beer at the Frog Hospital. A little bit further down South Fourth Street, Dean Flood was coming out of his house, working his way down the wheel chair ramp to his car. His legs were in metal braces and he struggled with crutches.

“Hey Dean, how goes it?” Jimmy said.

“Helloow, whts foe thr ddlls ggd,” Dean said a big smile.

“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” Jimmy said.

“I fesh ths ewotuf, rssdd, is sat so?” Dean said, and he became annoyed because he had to repeat himself over and over again. People couldn’t understand him ever since the car wreck that crippled him. Guys came to hang out with him at his house and watch TV and women were solicitous of his well-being, but Dean was looking at life in a wheel chair. He took a remarkably cheerful attitude anyway.

“Lkosoow, rrtheiosui, g’bye,” he said and climbed into his car drove off, wandering erratically on the wrong side of the road.

“Geez,” Jimmy said when Dean left in his car. “I couldn’t handle it if I was him.”

“You’re not him,” Hitch said. “If you were really luck you might be me, but you’re not."

“We’re all gonna die,” Jimmy said.

Lipstick On Your Collar

Lipstick on your collar told a tale on you.

Lipstick on your collar said you were untrue.

Bet your bottom dollar you and I are through

Cause lipstick on your collar told a tale on you, yeah.

-- Connie Francis

Harriet’s cabin was perched on pilings over the edge of the breakwater on Swinomish Channel. She looked out her window to see sailboats motoring quietly out to Skagit Bay, and she heard the small waves lapping on the sea weed under the pilings. Harriet’s white underwear, neatly pinned on the clothes line, flapped gently in the afternoon breeze. It was high summer in the Skagit Valley. Blackberries were ripe for picking everywhere. The cabbage plants had spent their soft yellow blossoms and were forming seed pods. The tulip fields over by Beaver Marsh Road were falling down brown and ready for digging. Tourists flooded downtown LaConner slurping ice cream cones.

Harriet watched the passing of this season with complete approval, to her as natural as the exhale after the inhale, as natural as the dust on the gravel road next to her cabin. “Someone kicks up the dust, the wind moves it around, then it settles back down again,” she said to her cat. Harriet preferred speaking to her cat. She liked people well enough, but only to look at from a distance.

Joy Helen Sykafoos left the wedding and raced down the Sand Spit gravel road. She wasn’t mad or upset, she always drove that way. She came screeching to a halt in front of Harriet’s cabin.

The problem, as she saw it, was that she was thinking about Jimmy and she was pretty goddam sure that he was not thinking about her. This was intolerable. She only liked him a little bit, but he ought to be pining away for her, at least by her standards.

“Harriet, we need to talk,” she said, and this cry brought Harriet out of her repose and come to the door of the cabin. “Joy, look at the wild roses over there,” she said, but Joy got right to the point.

“Harriet, why do men act that way?” Joy asked.

“Because they fear death,” Harriet explained.


“Men fear death. That is why courage is so important to them, because without courage they are only boys crying for their mamas.”

“So Jimmy is just a boy?”

“And he’s not worth the trouble. He needs to find his courage again. He needs to accept death. When that happens he will be a good lover.”

“What happened to your man?”

“He’s gone. Died really. You end up alone. If you’re lucky like me, then you have this nice place. I’m up early every morning. In the summer I get up at 5 a.m. The sun is bright and it’s so quiet out here. I have children. I have grandchildren. What do I need? I make spaghetti and I cook cauliflower for dinner. I make eggs for breakfast. I feed the cats. I watch the sky and the sailboats.”

“But Jimmy?”

You’re too young to understand,” Harriet said. “Just be kind to him. Have a heart. I see him when he comes walking back from town late at night – he wants to be a man, he has that goodness, let him breathe.”


“I like your skirt, it’s got that frilly edge. It moves like the wind. For a woman – to hell with men – if you have good movement you have beauty and you have strength. Now, can I take a closer look at the turquoise?” Harriet asked. Joy held out her wrist with the turquoise bracelet -- such silver gleaming around the blue stone that held all colors deep and fine, catching the gleam of the sunshine on this summer afternoon.

Notes. Under the Volcano is a classic novel written by Malcolm Lowry and published in 1947. It tells of the despair of a British man with a minor diplomatic assignment in Mexico. He lived in Cuernavaca “under the volcano,” that is, in the shade of mighty Popocatepetl – an active volcano over 17,000 in elevation.

Connie Francis wrote and sang Lipstick On Your Collar in 1959. The tremendous power and sensitivity of her singing voice stems from a childhood in New Jersey. People, even urban people, come from the land where they are born, and New Jersey is as real as it gets.

Talking Points. Will Jimmy and Hitch ever get to the Frog Hospital? Yes, but there’s trouble brewing, in a bizarre plot that involves druggist Fred Martin, police chief Larry Yonnally, and Keith Brown, a long-time Fishtown

resident who has finally gone over the edge. It’s a dangerous situation but it might be that Jimmy saves the day.

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