The story takes place in 2003 when I worked as a nursing aide at Skagit Valley Hospital. There's a lot of touching involved in nursing work -- hands on stuff. So I call it "Touch."
The second part of the story takes place at home in LaConner when I divorced my second wife. I wasn't too angry or too depressed -- I just wished it had turned out better.
Both segments, the nursing work, and the marriage breakup, are pretty common experiences.
Seven years later, in 2003, they still talked about Clyde at Café Culture, but it was getting old.
Fred Owens took the job at the Skagit Valley Hospital that November, because it was the end of landscaping season, and he often picked up work that way – just trying something. “Maybe I’ll like it,” he thought. “I like to find out what people do. I don’t know a thing about health care.”
The hospital hired Fred as a kind of Wal-Mart nursing aide. This is how he explained it to Stuart at the Rexville Store. “You see, they have the nurses, the RNs -- their trained and they give medication, and they run the place. The doctors give orders, but they’re never around, so the nurses are really in charge. And they get paid pretty well. After that comes the nursing aides, and they don’t give medication or keep records, they just do chores. They have a bit of training and they make about $12 an hour. After that comes the Wal-Mart nursing aides, who have no training. They do everything the regular nursing aides do, but for less money, and with no benefits or health insurance. That’s what I am.”
Stuart responded with less than his usual enthusiasm. What he didn’t say was, “Fred, you really ought to have a much better professional level job than this. Nursing is sissy work, bedpans, touching people, I don’t even want to think about it.”
Fred liked working at the hospital from the first day. The nurses sent him into a room to take care of a patient – a young man, but maybe older, maybe even close to 40, but of indeterminate age because the patient was seriously schizophrenic, and had that pasty, puffy complexion of a life largely unlived, except possibly in some other universe. His eyes were wild and wide like a deer. His eyes, Fred noticed, were a passage to another world. “But I’m not going there. I know enough about crazy people,” Fred thought.
Besides, the task was at hand, the patient was tied to the bed and thrashing in his own shit pile, and had made a besmeared brown pungent mess that was kind of impressive in its own way, and Fred realized something really quickly. “This is it,” he realized. “I’m glad this happened on the first day, and I don’t care. I’m just going to clean it up. I’m in – I’m in the club. I belong here. Nursing work means cleaning up shit, and if it bothers you, then go someplace else, but it doesn’t bother me, so now I know I belong here.”
The cleanup took a mountain of towels, wipes, re-wipes, and the patient’s wild, distant, uncaring gaze on him the whole time. That was the job.
Fred settled into a routine quickly enough. He was on call, so he could choose his hours, and he preferred the evening shift, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., because he liked having his mornings to hang out at Café Culture, or fool around in his garden.
“People are just like plants. They need attention in order to grow and develop.” he knew. “It’s in my hands. I have very good hands. That’s what I learned all that time landscaping and working on the farm – touching soil, branch and leaf. I could feel the energy. That’s why I loved the work. It’s the same with people. Now I put my hands on people. It’s incredible.”
He expanded on this into a theory, but he also knew that he should never mention it to anybody at the hospital. That was a hard won discretion for Fred – not saying something. “They’ll just think I’m a kook if I say that people are like plants. They already know I’m a kook. A white man, obviously educated, is working as a nursing aide – it has to be for a weird reason, like he’s religious, or else he’s a pervert or a communist and can’t keep a regular job. I know what they’re thinking.”
Which is what the nurses were thinking, and he was being carefully watched, but he found out, in time, that everybody was being carefully watched, and all the other nursing aides, largely female, had something wrong with them too, because it was a low-status job. Some of the nursing aides were religious women, with stout figures, and no interest in a higher calling, and they were proud to be of service and proud of their humble work – but it was wrong too. They hid behind their Christianity. It was a defense against life – and surely a defense against art. At the hospital in the evening, at the café in LaConner during the day, Fred shuttled between two worlds. And each camp stated clearly that, “we don’t want to know about those people,” referring to the “other.”
That was hard for Fred. Maybe he was more transcendent, more tolerant, more adaptable. The other explanation was that he was torn, divided, and he sloshed back and forth like the tide in Swinomish Channel, and he couldn’t find that stillness – that calm lake from his childhood.
The highest, most transcendent workers at the hospital were the silent cleaning women, who glided into the patient’s room like angel spirits and did their work for no tangible reward. They had no shield. They didn’t need one. “I’m glad they use that kind of soap that doesn’t smell,” Fred noticed. The cleaning fluids had no odor at all. And the ventilation was impressive. Fred was used to working outdoors and he has a tad claustrophobic, so he appreciated the fresh air. It never smelled like a hospital. Even the patients didn’t smell like they were sick. Of course, they reason they didn’t smell sick, was because Fred swabbed them down often enough. “You would be amazed at the amount and variety of bodily fluids that patients emit, “ he said to Stuart and Jim one morning, and they really didn’t want to hear this, “Urine, sweat, blood, both menstrual and regular, saliva, mucus, crap, ear wax, nose boogers, flaky skin, sperm, the putrefaction of wounds, phlegm….” Jim covered his ears.
Fred wasn’t getting anywhere. The conversation was competitive. “I don’t get any points for nursing stories. I even lose points.” Nursing was just too gay. Walt Whitman nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War, Fred remembered. “Gay, gay, and gay…” he thought.
But he did have his African wife. She was twenty years younger than Fred, and the hottest babe in LaConner and all the guys knew it, although no one ever said so, because Zodwa was his wife, and because she was black, not American black, but deep, tribal African black, and Fred wanted to tell them what it was like to have sex with Zodwa, but of course that was never going to happen.
Back at the hospital, with the good, fresh ventilation, the large windows, and the extra wide corridors for moving hospital beds, Fred was fairly at ease, despite being indoors. “But it’s too bad they don’t have any dirt around here. Dirt makes you feel good. I would like it, and the patients would like it too,” he thought, but he couldn’t figure out a way to install dirt in a hospital setting, despite the many hours he spent, sitting in a bedside chair, looking out the window and thinking about things like that.
The other thing was how different it was at the hospital, compared to the hippy/artist/tourist world in LaConner. LaConner was about being carefree and creative. The hospital was about pain, suffering, and death. The two worlds didn’t mix.
And the hospital was religious. There were lots of ministers about and good Christian women, with a sense of duty, honor, and sacrifice. It was something that Fred liked to be around.
Back in LaConner, John Kaguras, the fiery Greek architect, often held forth at Café Culture against all manner of religious expression, and his secular view was dominant. Jim Smith felt the same way, although he didn’t despise religion, he just didn’t care for it. And Stuart, over at the store, was a devout secularist with a pronounced hedonist streak that he picked up from his years in California.
“The unspoken rules are the most important ones,” Fred knew. “Café Culture has a strict policy about this and I could write them out and post them on the front door.”
Here’s what the rules were: It’s all right to be a little bit spiritual, along the lines of Native American ways or Buddhist teaching. Pagan expression was understandable, but a little bit loopy. Miraven, the beautiful grey lady from Anacortes, came in weekly to read Tarot. She was welcome because she was beautiful, not because of her mystic bent. Father Touhy, a renegade Jesuit priest who lived on the reservation with the tribe, was welcome at the café, but fortunately he never came. Kevin Paul was the only Indian who came in on a regular basis, and he was a singer and drummer and very spiritual. At times, he would bring his drum to the cafe and sing in the high-pitched wailing voice of his people, and the café would become rapt and silent.
That would be it – native American singing, Buddhist texts, and poetry, and don’t call it religion or Kaguras, the fiery Greek architect, would have a fit.
On that basis, Dave the cop, who came in twice a week, was an intruder. He had every mark of being a practicing Christian, but he knew better than to say so in that venue. It was enough for the guys at the cafe to welcome a cop.
“Hey, everybody’s got their way of doing things,” Fred knew. “Café Culture has its dogma, why not? I don’t quarrel with that.”
But it wasn’t enough for Fred. “I appreciate all this. I mean, I love it when Kevin Paul sings. I’ve been to Buddhist meditation. Poetry is the song of my soul. I’m down with all that.”
And yet Fred was religious, and that was why he loved being at the hospital, working with hoaky people and their Bibles.
“I never tell anybody this. I like religion. I believe in God. It’s never been a problem for me,” Fred thought. “I like being a Catholic. I hardly ever go to church, but I like the Pope. He’s my main man – I just don’t ever tell anyone.”
Back at the hospital, five nights a week, or even more often, Fred sat with the patients and became a hero to the nursing staff, because he was in charge of the tough ones – the wanderers and fighters, the ones who woke up out of a dead sleep and said, “I’m going home now,” arising from their beds, bare-ass naked but for the hospital gown, ripping out their IVs.
Fred’s job was to keep them in bed. Or the patients who hit the call button every five minutes. “You go in and keep them company,” Melissa said. She was the nursing supervisor for the evening shift. Melissa had soft freckles and a wide mouth, a good figure too. Most of the nurses weren’t very pretty, but Melissa was. “I like a little sexual tension at work,” Fred told Stuart one day. “You know, a slight erotic buzz, not strong, because then it would hurt, because you can’t actually do anything, but if all the women are ugly, it’s kind of boring.”
“Yeah, the ugly ones want attention,” Stuart responded. “And they’ll punish you if you ignore them. But, hey, you’ve got the nurses, the beds, the intimate setting – you could get lucky with Melissa.”
Stuart was right. Fred worked around women, beds, and nearly naked people called patients. It was all very intimate.
“I’ve had my hands on the private parts of more people than you can imagine,” he told Stuart.
“Aggh!” That was Jim Smith screaming in the background. “Don’t talk about it. I hate hospitals. I don’t know how you can stand working there.”
“Okay, let’s just talk about the women there. Most of them are fat and unpretty,” Fred said. All three men, Fred, Stuart, and Jim, were married, but on a theoretical level they still pursued women.
Which reminded Fred of Serena. “I had a fat girl friend once. She had a good figure, she was just a lot wider -- she had very good proportions.”
That wasn’t the problem with Serena. Not her weight, but her obsessive, neurotic need to talk about it. No matter how sincerely and how often Fred told Serena that he loved her just the way he was, she punished him. “I had to pay for all the other guys in her life who treated her like dirt, and told her to lose weight. I got tired of that. We broke up. I just wanted to have fun.”
So, at the hospital, Fred worked under and around women, and looked after old women in the beds, and he got on well with them. He kept his head down. He eagerly anticipated their demands. Not that eagerly, he just didn’t want to be shamed by a bitch.
“I never say bitch,” Fred thought. “I don’t even think that word. I respect women. I am enormously interested in their bodies – true -- but I can rise above that. And I’m nice to the homely ones. I pay attention to them, too.”
The guys at the café would say “ugly” but Fred’s mother taught him to say “homely.”
“It’s bad to call a woman ugly, it’s better to say that she’s homely, or that she’s plain-looking” he thought.
And it was bad of the nurses to put him down or make him feel small. “I’m a man. I don’t want to take any crap.” He guarded his space at the hospital, he kept his stance, in a woman-run world.
Fred had things to tell his friends at the Rexville Store – some farmers and contractors, a stone mason, another guy, Reilly, on Fir Island, who made a living with his wife delivering newspapers way early in the morning – things about nursing. Not the feminine part, which he knew they didn’t like it, but the other part about sickness and dying. If you don’t think about it or talk about it, then it won’t happen to you – that was the standard at the café and the store. He spoke anyway.
“They have it posted on the wall on the acute ward, the Patient’s Bill of Rights. What a load of crap! Patients don’t have any rights. If you’re in the hospital, the nurses own your ass. You’re sick, you’re helpless, and they take all your clothes away,” he said.
Fred watched the nurses carefully, like the way they brought a patient a glass of water, something as simple as that, but there were several variations in the nature of power and control, different aspects of body language. Fred was going to be sitting in that room all day and so he had time to notice:
-- bringing it with love and uncomplicated service
-- bringing it in a matter of fact way. “It’s just my job. Don’t think anything of it.”
-- bringing it with a slight pause that meant power, that meant, “I have the water and you need it. I control your life. You can’t live without water, and I’m the one who brings it to you.”
Fred wasn’t cynical about this. Power is real and being sick is powerless. If you’re sick, you’re in the hands of the nurses and that’s that – you take your chances. “They’re not angels of mercy, they’re human, that’s all,” he observed.
And it was about dying. This was a matter of some interest to Fred. “I’m planning to become an old man, but after that I’m going to die, so I want to see what it’s like.”
The most important thing that Fred learned about dying was that it was all right. “I’m amazed about this,” he told Marianne Meyer, who cut his hair, because dying was much too strong for telling the guys at the coffee shop, and he told her because she was a woman who touched him, and touched his hair, and he was very sensitive about his hair. “My hair is my antenna. With my hair it’s like a sixth sense and I can feel the universe,” he told Marianne, and she said, “I know just what you mean. Hair is everything.”
“You fix my head, darling,” he told her. “My life is in your hands.”
“Yes, I know,” she nodded.
Marianne lived on McLean Road, near the farms. She had a farmer’s attitude – working every day. A waitress attitude as well, she worked for the money, tireless, determined, and beautiful in many ways in Fred’s mind. Her face was a sculpture strong like the granite of mountains. Her hands were the power of love, gliding through his hair, as she stood behind him.
“I just love it,” she sighed. “You’re hair is so nice and thick.” This was a fact Fred was comfortable with. “I know,” he answered. “All the barbers love me, and strange women want to muss it up.”
She sighed again and pressed against him. “I’d screw her if she didn’t have such a bony ass,” Fred thought, kindly enough because Marianne usually got the men she wanted anyway.
Fred was in the school of men who felt that more was better, the evidence being his big ass African wife. “I don’t care for the waif or the willow,” he knew. “My brother likes tall, thin women, so we got it covered.” But he didn’t tell Marianne that, not that she was squeamish. She would have called her hair salon the Flying Fuck except for the nice old ladies from Shelter Bay who came for perms. No, Marianne was a brassy dame.
Instead, Fred told her, because they were intimate in that way, about people dying at the hospital. “It’s amazing. They’re not afraid. It’s just another day. Some of them are openly religious and some aren’t, but most of the old ones are ready to go. There’s no whining. That’s what I learned. There’s never a good time for whining. Everybody dies.”
“That’s right,” she said. “We’re all going to die. I’m going to die and I have no idea what happens after that.”
“Me neither, but I know how I’m going to die. It will be in the parking lot of the 7-11 convenience store, maybe the one over in Mount Vernon. I’ll be getting out of the car and walking into to get some coffee or something, and I’ll be hit by a blinding stroke and drop like a stone onto the pavement, stone dead, so dead my head bounces when I hit, and the people will rush around and look at the old man lying there.”
“You got it figured out,” she laughed.
“Yeah, but I don’t know when. Anyway, these old folks dying at the hospital -- I really like being with them. My whole outlook on the human race has improved. We’re all good people.”
Marianne’s shop was a small building, very nicely lit with windows on three sides. She had all the best magazines on her coffee table for the customers -- for herself she said, being the modern woman who would not admit that she did things for other people.
“Dying is so interesting,” he said, and he let her finish the haircut.
But he had quit the hospital in the spring because he was getting bored. He was locked into his low-status job. “It’s a Catch-22. They know that if you’re willing to do that kind of lowly work, then there must be something wrong with you,” he thought. Besides that, Fred had an attitude problem, a rebelliousness and a call to follow the creative imperative. Fred had carefully concealed this from the hospital staff. His comportment was excellent at all times – but the nurses knew, they knew… and Melissa the supervisor really wanted to keep him, and give him a permanent position – with higher pay and health insurance, but she was on the ward and actually worked every day. It was the hard ones in administration that blocked Fred’s progress, and everybody knew that Fred would never “get on” there.
In August, Fred was still collecting unemployment checks and passing the day vacantly. He did not give into the depression of empty days. He collected old boards and made paintings in the back yard while listening to the baseball game on the radio. This was deeply satisfying.
He drove Zodwa to work every morning and picked her up in the evening. She had wrecked her car after getting drunk with her friend Jeannie. The court had suspended her driver’s license, and she had to pay a large fine. Fred was really getting tired of all this. Jeannie, another African woman from Burundi, was a new friend of Zodwa’s and a very damaging influence. Zodwa’s drinking had become far worse because she had Jeannie to party with.
She sullenly dismissed Fred’s increasingly harsh judgment of her behavior. At home, she lay on the couch. The TV was always on, a mound of beer cans, cigarette butts, and chicken bones growing on the carpet near her feet.
“I can’t believe you just lie here like this. You can drink beer for hours and never move – when do you ever pee?” he accused her. “Why did you want to come to America? You can drink beer in Africa. You can party all you want in Africa. Why did you come here?”
Silence, no response. “She lies there like a lizard,” he observed, “a crocodile.” That was so stunning to Fred. “She does not think, I mean zero. I’m intuitive – I can recognize mental activity, and I tell you that woman is pure instinct,” he thought. Her instinct had been a source of wonder to Fred when they first met, a palliative for his thinking. “But, you know, I don’t care anymore. It’s the fucking beer. I can’t stand it.”
That evening, Fred made more angry accusations to Zodwa. It had been driving him crazy for months. Then he got in the car and began driving. He drove ten miles to Mount Vernon and went to the Denny’s restaurant to drink coffee and read. He stayed up until he was bleary-eyed, and he didn’t know what to do.
He didn’t want to go to Jim and Janet’s house out on Pull and Be Damned Road. He had already turned up there late at night several times with a sad story of marriage on the rocks. They were sympathetic, but it was getting to be an old movie.
“I can’t even go to my own fucking house,” he moaned, driving around aimlessly, getting very sleepy. Finally he pulled into the parking lot of the Rexville grocery store – that was Stuart and Joyce’s’s country store, a few miles outside of LaConner in the middle of farm country.
He turned off the engine and felt the quiet. It was 2 a.m. on a summer night. He opened the window of the Toyota and smelled the cedar trees, seeing their dark outline against the horizon and felt a soft breeze on his face. “I don’t know what to do,” he thought.
Fred tilted back the seat, put his jacket over him like a blanket and fell asleep. He woke up about 4:30 a.m. with terrible cramps in his legs because he couldn’t stretch his legs out. It was awful. The store wouldn’t open until 7 a.m. Fred tossed and fidgeted and cursed, but at least he was too tired to think about anything.
Stuart drove up to the store at 6:30 a.m. to open up and get the coffee started – he didn’t notice Fred’s car parked in the back. By 7 a.m., Fred felt like complete shit. He had a foul taste in his mouth and a funky smell in his clothes. He really didn’t want to walk into Stuart’s store looking like that, so first he took a five-minute walk to breathe in some fresh air and at least get past Stuart’s friendly scrutiny.
He took his coffee and mumbled a few words to Stuart. He got back in his car and headed for the university in Bellingham – he wasn’t sure why, he was just going. “I’m losing my mind, I don’t know what to do,” he said. His hands were shaking. His legs were in pain. He kept switching stations on the radio as he drove, trying to stay awake.
When he got to the campus, he went to the library, found a couch deep in the stacks, and slept for two hours. Nobody bothered him. “At least I have survival skills, like an animal, I know where to curl up and sleep” he thought, as he woke up and stretched.
But he needed help – instead of the constantly repeating images of his lousy marriage, instead of watching those tapes play over and over, Fred’s mind had gone into a painful seizure.
He went over to the student mental health center on the top floor of the old administration building and they scheduled him for an emergency appointment. “I guess they could tell I’m not making up some story, I really do look like shit” he thought, as he flipped through magazines in the waiting room.
The therapist turned out to be a pretty young intern. “I don’t care who she is,” he thought. And he told her his story about the marriage and Zodwa’s drinking, ending with the sleepless night in his car and a plea for help.
The young therapist said, “You really need to do something about this. You need to take action.”
“Yes, I do,” Fred replied, too dumb to respond any other way.
Even in his exhausted state, Fred knew he was hearing a message from angels. Experienced therapists don’t give directions, but this young one didn’t know any better. That’s why she said it so plainly, “Stop putting up with this crap and fix your life.”
That was it. Fred went home and had it out with his spouse, either leave the house or quit drinking he told her, and he really didn’t care which. Well, he did care, because she moved out the next day and stayed at a women’s shelter in Bellingham. Fred was sad and the house was empty.
It got worse. Two weeks later Zodwa got a lawyer and served papers on him -- she wanted money. At least Fred’s friends told him the truth. “Fred, you’re screwed big time,” Mike told him over at the Rexville Store. Mike Carlisle was a stone mason, a drinker, a cynic, with a warm smile and natural baritone voice. He was from Mississippi, which didn’t make him wise in Fred’s eyes, but did make him a survivor. Mike was one of those people who were never going back.
Fred appreciated the cruel directness of Mike’s judgment. “I’m hosed,” he realized. “The money is all gone and I’m going to lose the house too.”
Stuart said the same thing from behind the counter, Stuart, with his round glasses and strong teeth. “If you get out with your health and the shirt on your back, well…,” but Stuart was interrupted by a customer’s need for a latte.
Fred looked for a lawyer “I need to find somebody who will tell me the truth, but in a kind way, because this hurts too much,” he decided. Ben Sakuma was a Japanese-American lawyer with a small office in South Mount Vernon. It was not a prestigious location, but the woodwork in Sakuma’s office was warm and the receptionist was warm too. “That’s what I need from a lawyer – sympathy, because there’s no way to fix this.”
Sakuma looked over Fred’s financials and calculated that his own profit in this divorce case was likely to be small, but he did not smirk or condescend, he just gave Fred the worst case scenario with no talk of fighting Zodwa’s demands. Fred was very comfortable at hearing this, like sitting on a good couch at a funeral parlor. But Sakuma finished his assessment on a hopeful note, “You know, it’s just possible that it might not be so bad. You might end up with a little bit more than this, something you can use to start over.”
And he gave Fred a number. “That’s it. I have it,” Fred said to himself as he left the office. He paid Sakuma a consultation fee and never went back. That number – it was how much money he would have after the house was sold and after Zodwa got her share. That number was a wonderful, beautiful fact, an anchor to Fred’s misery.
September came with humiliating court appearance brought on by Zodwa’s demands for money. In October, he finished his backyard painting project. With great love and hope he arranged his “outdoor paintings,” as he called them, in his front yard for the townsfolk to admire. Hardly anybody liked Fred’s latest effort, or even said anything. “It’s too edgy for this town. You can’t make a painting except a landscape or something about Buddhists. That’s all they like around here.”
The art exhibit was a minor disaster. Nobody noticed, nobody said anything. “Crushed again,” Fred thought, but all he did was send a nasty email to the director of the art museum in LaConner, about how that museum, that bunchy of twitty, snobby art patrons, had no appreciation, etc. and so forth. “I shouldn’t have done that, but what the hell, I’m not perfect. I don’t like those people and they don’t like me,” he thought, referring to the museum crowd.
But he had to forgive his friends. “They like me, but they don’t like my art. There’s nothing I can do about that, unless I want to do paint Tibetan mandalas,” he said.
In late November, the winter rains came and Fred brooded in his empty house. He spoke to his children often enough on the phone and they would be coming home for Christmas, but then the roof started leaking – badly, in the laundry room, right where he had fixed it last summer.
Fred made no self-accusation of his failure to patch the roof. “I got up there, I spread the tar around. I thought I did a good job, but I guess I screwed it up,” he realized. In fact, the leak had gotten worse, not better. “I cannot fix anything that involves a ladder. I don’t do anything high. I’m a ground person,” he stated clearly.
He mentioned the leaking roof to his sister, Tessie, in California, and she offered to loan him the money for a new roof. That was tough for Fred, he had never borrowed money from her before, but he said yes – thinking that he now had another reason to sell the house – in order to pay her back.
So, in December he got a new roof and some bit of what was left of his family life at home when the kids came back for a week or so. But January came, cold, wet, and dark, and Fred still wasn’t working and he was still lonely too, rattling around in the house.
Later in January, Fred rented one of the bedrooms to Mike Heaton for $300 a month. Mike was part of the Minnesota Mafia, a group of men and women who migrated to the Skagit Valley in the 1970s from the frozen north lake country of Minnesota. They were converts. They were never going back.
Mike was not more peculiar than some other people in LaConner, but he was the only man in town that was peculiar in this particular way -- he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink but a little bit, he rarely worked, and he never had a girl friend. He rode his bicycle and never owned a car. Mike did practically nothing, except hang out at the cafe and scrounge for places to sleep. He was very intelligent. He graduated from college a long time ago. In the early 1990s he went down to San Diego and lived with his brother. While he was there, he went back to the university and picked up a master’s degree in computer science, but he did nothing with his advanced degree. He simply returned to LaConner after two years and returned to his old ways, doing odd jobs here and there – when he could have worked in a software company in Seattle and made a fortune. People were a little surprised at that, but Mike offered no explanation, so they let him be.
Mike had quite a reputation as a cat sitter and house sitter, and he could sometimes get a house to live in for months at a time. So Fred was surprised that Mike accepted his offer for a room because he hadn’t seen Mike pay anybody rent in twenty years. Maybe Mike had the money all along. “I’ll bet Mike has thousands of dollars squirreled away someplace in a savings account, or maybe he plays the stock market. He might have tons of money, but he keeps it hidden,” he thought.
Fred wasn’t that curious. He just figured that Mike was quiet and wouldn’t damage things or bring people over to the house, so he gave him the room and collected the money.
It was Fred’s last effort to keep the house running, to get some income, and keep it from being empty, but it didn’t work. Mike was awfully dull to live with. “I’m still depressed. This isn’t going to work. Zodwa was beautiful, sexy, exotic, demanding, and greedy. She was so many things, and mostly bad towards the end, but God, she filled up this house,” Fred thought. In contrast, Mike had no more life than a sack of potatoes.
In March, Fred put the house on the market. In late May it was sold. Fred divided the money with Zodwa and it all somehow worked out just right to the number that Benjamin Sakuma said he would end up with – just that much money. The house was gone and so was Zodwa. As soon as she got her share of the loot, she got on a plane to visit her family in Zimbabwe. “They’re very poor people. She’ll give them the money. At least some good will come of it,” he thought.
Fred gave most of his money to his daughter in Texas. She had a good job and she used Fred’s money to make a down payment on a house down there. “I want you to have the money,” he told his daughter. “You can benefit from my mistake. I screwed up and lost my home, but now you can have a home instead.”
And it was all over. It didn’t hurt very badly, except Fred felt really stupid – old and stupid. He moved out of the house, sold or gave away most of his possessions, bought a tent, and camped 15 miles away, in the forest at the edge of Anacortes.
That first night camping, he had the dream again, the Dream of the Fearless Old Man Heading out to Sea, in important dream that came to him ten years before, and came to him again like a beacon of light. In the dream he was on a small ferry boat with twenty other passengers. The sea was getting rough and the sun was going down, and the boat was headed back to the harbor. The wind began to blow whitecaps as the boat came to the mouth of the rock jetty.
As the boat crossed the bar Fred and the other passengers crowded the rail on the side of the boat to see a small vessel – it was a kayak. An old man was paddling this blue kayak out to sea, as calmly as if he were on a pond. He was paddling like he was going a long ways and straight out to sea and going through the chop at a steady pace. He seemed especially strong and sure. His hair was grizzled and his chest was bare. Fred watched this old man paddling his kayak as he huddled against the cold wind on the deck of the boat.
That was the dream. When Fred woke up he was elated. “I’m going to be that old man some day. I won’t be afraid of the water anymore, not the tide or the wind or the current. I won’t be afraid of anything.”
That dream secured his old age. It was going to be a cinch, but there was a gap between now and then and some living to do. Fred knew he wasn’t getting any smarter, but it was just possible that he could avoid becoming dumber.
He built a small fire under the cedar trees, gathering small twigs and branches lying on the ground near the salal and ferns. The fog horn on the point was a wonderful, haunting OM sound that stilled the night. The crows had gone silent. Fred gazed into the fire and remembered. If he could piece out a pattern to his past…..”No, that’s a waste of time. The best thing I can do is forget the past, leave it alone, draw no conclusions, empty my head and face the wind,” he thought. Still he remembered.