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Sunday, January 5, 2014

(”Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”…Matthew 5: 3-12)

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration
Chapter One
Long Beach, California, November 24, 2002

Old man Schuler tugged firmly on the leash, letting Winston, his twelve year-old English bulldog know that he was through being dragged around the neighborhood on their evening constitutional. Winston gagged slightly, stopping obediently but reluctantly. The squat, muscular little beastie turned his fat head and gave his master the stink eye. Carl Schuler ignored the dog's little rebellion and came to a stop himself, grateful that the mutt had decided to take pity on him and cooperate.
“Good boy Winston!” he exclaimed, overtly praising his pet in hopes the animal would stay still long enough for him to catch his breath. Carl wiped at the sweat beaded on his brow with the sleeve of his windbreaker. He exhaled long and deep, and drew back in an equally deep lung full of cool, crisp oxygen.
“Doggie detail is a helluva way to treat a veteran!” he muttered to the empty sidewalk.
            On the plus side, these little walks did get him out of the house daily. Which, short of the sweet release of death, was pretty much his only chance of escaping the shrill sound of Edith’s constant chattering. Only in death, his or hers, at this point in his life he no longer cared which, would he again know peace and quiet he sarcastically imagined. Lord above, how that woman loved the sound of her own voice! Of course he had stopped paying attention years ago, but goddamn this healthy body, he was still cursed with having to listen!
            The day had been warm, typical for Southern California. Nobody knew what a real winter felt like around here. Hell, the people around here bundled up like Eskimos as soon as the mercury leveled off below sixty degrees. Secretly Carl missed the east coast lifestyle. The older he got the more he longed for the snow and cold of his youth. But it was nearing 5PM and the cool ocean breeze brought a familiar chill. Edith would never leave this place; he'd surrendered to that fact many, many, many years ago. California born and raised, she and Carl had made a life together in the Golden State raising five sons and four daughters.
            They had met during WWII while he recovered at the VA Hospital in Long Beach from wounds he received at Guadalcanal. Edith Laurel Harper was the cutest nurse on the whole second floor, and after a solid year of corny jokes and even cornier love notes he won her heart. It would bemoan that accomplishment daily later in life. But hey, life’s ‘a crap shoot at best’ he always said. People either grow together or grow apart, it was that simple as far as his secular self was concerned. His spiritual self, the one he hid from everyone but his Edith believed that love never fails, just like the scriptures promise. It's people who fail to love. Goddamn free will poppycock! He imagined life would be pretty sweet if the Almighty would take that little gift back.   
            Carl zipped up his lightweight jacket with one hand and stuck the other into the fleece-lined pocket. He started to tug at Winston when a sudden movement from the house they were standing outside of distracted him. He looked over quickly at the row of houses on his left and fixed his eyes on the large bay window of his neighbor’s home. The long drapes fell closed, but not before Carl spotted a small boy duck down beneath the windowsill. Not much of a hider though, the kid’s little fingers were still visible holding onto the drapes. Carl could clearly see his pointed little head covered with thick brown hair through the freakishly clean glass. The child’s mother, Michelle Bouchard was a pleasant young woman and real neat freak. An endearing trait that Carl wished would rub off on Edith. She and Patrick, her husband were a very nice Amerasian couple, and their son Gabriel was a wonderfully precocious five-year old. He had the happiest eyes and a smile to go with it. The boy was a beautiful hybrid, a warm blend of cultures physically and socially. Gabriel never failed to make Carl smile, even when he didn't feel much like doing so, like when his sciatica acted up or when Edith put him in the doghouse.
            The Bouchard’s had moved in next door to the Schuler family only a couple years ago, when Michelle was pregnant with their second child. Carl remembered fondly how she and Edith had bonded, which wasn’t hard to understand given Edith’s vast experience at childbirth. This pregnancy had been more difficult than Gabriel's, and Michelle was constantly running to and from the OBGYN. He and Edith had stepped up and helped the young couple, providing meals, babysitting, and taxi services, right up to the night that Patrick dropped off a soundly sleeping Gabriel in the wee hours while he rushed Michelle off to deliver his little sister. Carl sighed, recalling the next day when Patrick phoned to tell them that there had been complications. The baby girl had been stillborn, and Michelle ended up having an emergency hysterectomy as well.
            Carl wasn't fond of remembering that night; it had been tough on everyone, especially Edith. You would have thought that Michelle was her own with by river of tears that flowed. He shuddered, thinking of it and shook off the memory by clearing his throat loudly. Carl waived to the boy in the window and instantly five little fingers appeared, wiggling like tiny snakes in response to his gesture. The old neighbor smiled and tugged at Winston’s leash. “Let’s go old boy,” he said sternly. “Let’s see what mother has for supper tonight!”
            Gabriel Bouchard jumped up from his crouch beneath the windowsill and rapped at the glass with his tiny knuckles. “Goodbye!” he shouted in his little voice, waiving at Carl and Winston as they walked up their drive next door, but they didn’t hear him. The boy took one more look up and down the street to see if he could spot his Daddy’s car coming, and then scurried off to the kitchen where his mommy was busy preparing supper. He could hear her voice, she was humming a familiar tune; she was always humming or singing a tune. Hitting the ceramic tiled floor at full speed he skated over to her, sliding effortlessly across the floor in his stocking feet.
“GABRIEL LUC BOUCHARD,” his startled mother shouted!
            Michelle turned quickly to face him, her hand over her heart as if to keep it from flying out of her chest. She picked up the ever-handy wooden spoon, the pow-pow spoon she called it, and unconvincingly threatened him gloom and doom. Gabriel froze like a statue, as if he were playing freeze tag out in the yard. Michelle tried her best to remain stern, but the goofy look on her son's face and his ridiculous pose, forced her to look away before he saw her smile. It was her intention to scold him but first she had to swallow her giggles.
“Listen here young man! You know better than to scare me like that, don’t you?"
"What if I had something hot in my hand, I might have burned you honey! Please be more careful, OK?” she said to him as she turned to look at him, her stern warning erasing the smile on her face.
            Gabriel didn’t answer her because he was still playing freeze tag. Michelle shook her head slowly and walked over to where he stood frozen and touched him on the shoulder, instantly unfreezing him as per the rules, and ending the game.  The little boy hugged her hard, wrapping his short little arms around her leg and burying his head between her knees like children do. From this vantage point he could see the see the stove and the kitchen counter behind her, as well as Newton. Sir Isaac Newton was the family’s crazy, terrorist cat who was currently curled up near the sink waiting for mommy to hand him a piece of cheese or whatever she might be cutting up for supper. Michelle wriggled her way out of Gabriel’s embrace and turned him back toward the hall.
“You go and wash up for supper; daddy will be home any minute. Go on now, scoot!" she said, giving him a little push on his tushie with her foot.
“OK Mommy,” replied Gabriel, as he sprinted off to the bathroom down the hall.
“NO RUNNING IN THE HOUSE,” she hollered belatedly, squinting at the sound of the slamming bathroom door.
“I swear, I don’t know who listens least, Gabriel or Patrick,” she muttered as she resumed preparing the evening meal.
            Michelle picked up a large knife and started cutting a pile of red rose potatoes that had been soaking in a mixing bowl in the sink. She thought about Gabriel versus Patrick for a moment and then grinned, muttering to Newton, “well, at least Gabriel remembers to leave the seat down." She softly hummed a tune as she ran a stream of tap water over the freshly cut spuds. Rubbing her nose with the back of her wet hand she looked up at the clock above the stove. It was just after five, and I would be home any minute. Michelle frowned; she hadn’t even started boiling the potatoes. Oh well it had been a trying day, what with Gabriel being home sick and all. He had complained about being tired and achy this morning. Actually, he had been complaining about being tired a lot, and he'd had several bloody noses lately as well. Doctor Phillips said that he was probably just going through a growth spurt, and suggested that she watch him closely for a few days to make sure he wasn’t just picking at his nose like kids do.
            She wasn’t exactly crazy about his diagnosis, but he was the doctor after all, and Gabriel did seem to be feeling better today. So she decided to accept his explanation and recommendation not to worry. She was relieved when he prescribed some Children’s Tylenol and a day of rest, assuring her that her son would be up to his old tricks in no time. He was probably right, but still, Michelle was always nervous whenever Gabriel seemed out of sorts. It was probably just a mild case of a mother’s paranoia, she knew that, but ever since the miscarriage she had become a tad over protective of the only child she would ever give birth to. That was an occasional issue between her and I, mostly because I just didn’t get it she would say. I probably didn't, after all, I wasn’t a mother and a man can never really understand what it means to be one, to be so thoroughly connected with another human being.
            Michelle looked down at a mewing Newton and took pity on the sad little thing. She wasn't much of a cat person, but the little dickens had grown on her during the year since they rescued him from the pound. She reached over and cut a small wedge of cheese from the block she was preparing to grate. Newton had this drill down pat and was already standing on his hind legs, reaching up with an orange marmalade colored paw to take delivery of his snack.
“There you go you little beggar,” Michelle said sweetly, reaching down and scratching the top of his furry head while he chomped at the cheese with his sharp little teeth.
HEY, how does a workin’ man get some attention around here?” I shouted from the living room.
“IN HERE HONEY!” she replied, drying her hands with the dishtowel on the counter.
            I walked in through the dining room doorway and scooped up my wife in my usual bear hug, twirling her around a full 360 degrees before putting her down gently. I kissed her on the end of her pointed Roman nose and then jumped up onto the counter and sat beside the stove. Leaning over the burner, I lifted the lid of the stewpot and took a deep whiff of the meal she was preparing. She hated when I did that, and always scolded me about teaching Gabriel my bad habits!
“OH MAN, I’m starving babe, this really smells great though! What is it?” I asked enthusiastically.
“GET DOWN FROM THERE PATRICK! How many times do I have to tell you that Gabriel copies everything you do? You don’t want me to have to take him to the Emergency Room again, do you? Once is good enough for today, thank you very much!” Michelle said, scolding me. I hopped down quickly, doing as I was told. “Sorry honey, my bad,” I apologized.
“Yeah, well…”
“So what’s in the pot?”
“It’s Mulligan Stew,” she answered.
“Do I like that?”
“You will. Why don’t you go wash up and I’ll call you and Gabriel when it’s ready, OK?”
”Sure. Hey, why did he have to go to the doctor today?" I asked.
            Michelle tensed up visibly and I could sense that she didn't want to have another ‘discussion’ about the frequent doctor visits. I tried to keep it light but I was worried that she was overreacting every time the little guy had the sniffles. I assumed it was because of our stillborn daughter, Rebecca. I really didn't want to upset her any more, but goddamn it, this had to stop. It wasn't healthy for anyone, for her, for me, for Gabriel, for anyone. I really wanted us to see someone, maybe through the church, and get some help, but she was pretty stubborn, especially when she got her Irish up. 
Oh, he just had trouble getting up this morning, that's all. And he had another bad nose bleed too. I wanted to check that out. Besides, we have good insurance honey, and everyone at the HMO is really nice. I just wanted to make sure, OK?"
            I swallowed the response that had already formed in my brain and was sitting perched on the tip of my tongue. There was no good reason to make a mountain out of a molehill. Mothers will be mothers. And she was right, we did have good insurance. So it wasn't a money issue for me. I was worried we were giving Gabriel the impression he wasn't normal. None of his friends spent so much time in doctor's offices. My face must have given away what I was thinking in the few seconds it was taking me to reply.   
"Please don’t make a big thing about it Patrick, let’s have a pleasant evening and enjoy each other’s company, I really don't want to bicker tonight, OK babe?” she pleaded softly, studying my face for a clue as to where this talk might be heading.
            What could I say? When the one you love is hurting it's easy to capitulate. So, I sighed and looked down at the floor, put my hands on my hips, and assumed my usual surrender posture. I knew that Michelle had prepared herself for a fight, but I didn't let it start. The high road is usually the best path according to Father Michael, so I followed it and placed my hands behind me, jamming them into the back pockets of my jeans.
“It’s alright babe, better safe than sorry, right,” I said, gently biting on the flesh inside my mouth. “It’s alright, really,” I reiterated.
            Michelle exhaled deeply and jogged over to where I stood. She knew I was lying but she was grateful for the loving gesture and hugged the stuffing out of me, kissing me repeatedly all over my face. I pushed away from her to escape the flurry of butterfly kisses.
“OK, OK, enough already! I’m gonna go wash up and see what the little monster is up to,” I said snickering, as I broke free.
            She chased me for a step or two, pinching at my butt as I made my escape. I can't think straight when she does that, no fair! Then, turning on her heels she went back to the stew that was simmering on the stovetop. I paused to watch her a moment as she tossed the red rose potatoes into the stewpot. She looked back suddenly and caught me staring and picked up the pow-pow spoon. I met her mock warning with a grin and left the room. Before I cleared the doorway I heard her whisper, “God I love that man.”

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