An Empty Grave...

Chapter 9: Strength

I woke to the smell of coffee and bacon, two powerful motivators in the morning. Crash, of course, was nowhere to be seen no doubt having decamped at the first sound of the refrigerator door. I was getting pretty good at getting out of bed by myself and managed to get my crutches and get into the bathroom with a minimum of pain. After washing my face I studied it in the mirror, pleased at how the sickly yellows and greens were turning a nice rosy red. I decided I looked less like I was rotting and more like I'd only been beaten up.

In the kitchen I found Eric tending the bacon while Crash sat and looked adoringly at him and Tux wove his way around his ankles and purred. "It looks like you have everybody's undivided attention," I said and sat at the place that was obviously set for me.

Eric grinned. "It seems that way doesn't it?" He took some of the bacon out of the pan and laid it on paper towels. "Tux is the only cat I've ever known that liked bacon. I don't think all that salt is very good for him so he doesn't get much but he sure does crave it. Dogs are different, they can eat almost anything." He held a small piece of bacon out to Crash who took it in her usual delicate way, her lips never touching Eric's fingers. Tux glared at Crash and let out a meow, wanting his. When he got it he hunched over it and ate in tiny bites. Crash watched, salivating a little.

Breakfast was very traditional: bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, toast, juice, and coffee. "You've got to stop feeding me like this, Eric, or I'm going to look like Raymond Burr in his later years," I said when we finished.

"Naw. It's good for you. Your body has to have food to heal properly."

"What my body needs is a long, hot shower and about six weeks in the gym." I made a mental note to beg Dr. Langford to let me take a shower.

"Speaking of needing a shower," Eric said holding out the last dish for Crash to lick before he put it in the dishwasher, "I think I'd better put your stuff in the washer and see if we can get some of that smell out of it. Come on, you can show me what you want first."

Once he had some shorts and tee shirts in the washing machine he settled me out on the patio with the morning paper and a book I'd been reading before all this started. He also brought out a cooler filled with ice and bottles of mineral water and soft drinks. "That should keep you until lunch time," he said. "I have to run some errands and mow a couple of yards I've kind of neglected but I'll be back in a while." He grinned at me. "Now what do you suppose Raymond Burr would have for lunch?"

I grinned back. "Salami and jack cheese with oil and vinegar, no mustard. Extra onions."

"You got it." He went into the house and a moment later I heard his truck take off down the driveway.

I looked at the morning paper but didn't really read much except for the comics--which weren't very funny--and one or two stories. After all that had happened I found that I didn't have much taste for the bad things happening to other people. I switched to the book and found that I had no idea what was going on where I had marked my place. I realized I was going to have to either begin it again or abandon it. I opted for abandonment.

Crash came out of the kitchen, crawling on her belly through the pet door. It wasn't very convenient for her but after all, it was Tux' door and it had never been intended to be used by a sixty-five pound Airedale. She had her ball in her mouth and she came over to me and dropped it in my lap, wanting it thrown.

Somehow Crash seemed to understand about the crutches but she also understood that my ball throwing arm was in perfectly good shape, at least from her point of view. I tossed the ball onto the lawn and she ran after it, bouncing around on the grass like a puppy and giving little barks of joy at running with a purpose. A few more tosses and I realized that it felt pretty good from my point of view too. Somehow just that little effort, and the pain it brought, made me feel more real, more alive.

We played until my arm seemed on the verge of rebellion. When I handed her the ball--instead of throwing it--she accepted it gracefully and lay down next to me to chew on it while I took a nap.

When I woke I hobbled into the service porch and put my clothes in the dryer. When they were dry I hobbled back and managed to fold them, balancing myself with the crutches. The frustrating part was that I couldn't carry them back to my room. About the time I finished with the folding I heard Eric drive up and I realized that even though I had done practically nothing all morning I was hungry.

"Hey, that's my job," Eric said coming into the laundry room.

"No more," I said. "I've discovered I'm again competent in the laundry department. The only thing is, I can't carry any of it. I'd really appreciate a little help there."

Eric scooped up my folded clothes and went off down the hallway with them. When he returned we went back outside and he handed me what looked like a small football wrapped in white butcher paper. "That's the Raymond Burr special," he said over his shoulder going back into the house. He came back with a paper plates, napkins and a large bag of potato chips.

After lunch I went back to my lounge and Eric went to work on the garden shed which he'd decided needed a new roof and some paint. I picked up my book to give it another try but I didn't get very far. Eric had changed into gym shorts and work boots--his complete costume--and I found myself spending more time looking at him than at my book. Finally I gave up the pretense, put the book aside and watched him, hoping he would assume I was just dozing in the sun.

I did doze some, too, and the afternoon passed in a sun warmed haze and not once did I think about that dark green station wagon.

We grilled steaks that evening--with me in charge of the grill. Eric carried the stuff out and I watched and turned the meat while he prepared salad, corn on the cob and garlic bread in the kitchen. That everything was done at the same time was more a tribute to Eric's planning than to my skill as grill man.

While we ate I asked Eric if Les often went off the way he had the day before.

"Maybe once a month or six weeks," he said, handing me the garlic bread.

 "What do you suppose he's doing?" I asked.

"No idea," he said with a shrug. "I never thought about it. Besides, it's none of my business what he's doing." His implication was that it was none of my business either.

Later, helping put the dishes in the dishwasher I said, "You're very close to Les, aren't you? Loyal."

He stopped filling the soap dispenser in the dishwasher and looked up at me. "I tell you, Davy. I'd give up my life for that man." He finished with the soap, started the dishwasher and took a couple of clean wine glasses out of the cupboard. Then he pulled a bottle of wine out of the rack over the refrigerator and opened it. I recognized it as one of the bottles Dr. Langford had brought.

"I think it's time you heard about me and Les, Davy. Not so much about me maybe but Les. It might help you understand why you're here. Why I'm here, too.

He put the wine and glasses on a tray and we went out to the patio where we could look at the stars behind the palm tree silhouettes. When we were settled and the wine had been poured Eric pointed outward, beyond the wall.

"You see that bit of reddish glow out there? Well, that's Desert Hot Springs--affectionately called Desperate Hot Springs. Out by the highway there there's a Texaco station and right behind it is the house where I was born." He chuckled. "Yeah, I'm one of the local boys, born here and lived here all my life--except for about a year when I was up in San Francisco but for most of that I was in the county jail so it doesn't really count as far as living goes." He sipped his wine and stared out into the gathering darkness for a moment.

"Anyway, when I was growing up over there I kind of got in with what you'd probably call the wrong crowd. See, I didn't take very well to school so I didn't spend a whole lot of time there and the guys and me, we'd just run around most days, drinking beer and raising hell and having a fine time. I had an old `49 Chevy that I kept in pretty good shape so when the weather was good we'd go down to the Salton Sea or up to the old hot springs and mess around. After a while they kicked me out of school altogether and my step-mother said I couldn't hang around the house all day and I had to get a job.

"That didn't work out all that well either. I don't know.  There was something about always having to do what someone else wanted me to do that just didn't sit well with me. Anyway, for a while I had a job at that Texaco station out in front of the house and I did alright because ol' Jack--the guy who owned the place--Jack was mostly too drunk to even know what he wanted me to do. So I pretty much did what I wanted to but then I sorta got into a thing with Jack's wife and when he found out about it... Well that was the end of being a service station mechanic. In fact it was damn near the end of me." He looked at me and grinned. "Don't worry. This really is going somewhere." He sipped at his wine and reached down to scratch Crash behind the ears.

"After that I worked at a bunch of things but none of them for very long, you know how it is." He turned and studied me for a moment. "Well, no, I guess you don't. Anyway, one day Les came into the nursery where I was working for a while and asked me if I knew someone who would take care of his yard. I said sure, I could do it if it wasn't too rigid a schedule or anything. Les just laughed and said to come around whenever I wanted and do whatever needed to be done. I did that for a year or two and it worked out pretty well, I just came over here when I felt like it and cleaned the pool and cut the grass or planted some flowers and we were both happy.

"Then I got to doing some cocaine now and then and after a while I guess I got to doing a lot of it. I did some other stuff too and one day I got hold of some real bad something and went all goofy. I don't remember much about it but I do remember thinking I was going to die and I wanted to die someplace pretty so I came up here and laid down in a bed of snap-dragons I had planted. Les found me there, naked and all covered with dirt and... Well, you get the idea."

I was still wondering where all this was taking us but I didn't really care. I was fascinated by the story. I knew things like this happened but I'd never actually heard someone talk about it--someone it had happened to. I was also surprised at how Eric could talk about it so calmly.

 "Here's the part you really need to know, the part that will maybe help you to understand Les. When he found me out there," Eric pointed at the bed of red flowers he'd been planting that first time I saw him, "he dragged me out--Les is a pretty strong man, you know--washed me down with the hose, put something on me and then took me down to Rancho Mirage, to the Betty Ford. At the hospital they pumped my stomach and gave me something to make me sleep. When I woke up Les was there, sitting beside the bed."

He paused for a long time and I wondered what could possibly be going through his mind. I sipped my wine and waited for him to go on."

"I was so stupid, you know? The first thing I did was ask him to get me some coke. He just shook his head and told me that was all behind me now and there would be no more of it. A little later, when I was begging him to get it, he kept telling me I didn't need it and I could beat it. Davy, he was so sure of it, he believed in me so much, that I began to think maybe he was right. But that shit is so strong and once it gets hold of you..." He tossed back the rest of his wine and refilled our glasses.

"Anyway, I was in that place for a month and every day Les was there too, telling me how strong I was and how he knew I could beat it. And I did, because Les believed in me." He stopped and shook his head, wiping at his eyes. Then he went on.

"When they let me out Les brought me up here to stay for a while, until I got my life together. That's when I sort of got into the habit of taking care of him, making sure he ate when he was off in one of his trances and seeing to the house and the yard."

"How come you left? Living here I mean?"

"I guess I needed to prove that I could be on my own, you know? And this lady I was working for, keeping up her yard and pool after her husband died, she offered me the little casita out by her garage. So I took her up on it and I've been there ever since."

We sat in silence for a long time, both of us, I think, thinking about what he'd just told me. Finally I said, "It's no wonder you're so loyal to Les."

"Yeah. He's a very kind, understanding man. And that's the thing. That's why I don't even wonder about what he's doing when he takes off like this. It's his business and if he wanted me to know about it, if it mattered to me, he'd tell me about it. The same with you."

I thought about that for a while and realized that he was exactly right. Les had taken me in the same way he'd taken Eric in, because I needed to be taken in. What Les did, how he lived, was none of my concern.

We sat looking out over the valley, thinking our private thoughts and sipping our wine for a long time. When it began to get cool Eric suggested we go inside and treat ourselves to desert. He'd bought some rich, dense chocolate ice cream which he thought would be good with the red wine we were drinking.

He lit the fire in the living room, helped me get settled in front of it and then went to the kitchen. "I love having a fire, don't you?" he asked, coming back with the ice cream and our wine on a tray. He sat cross legged on the carpet where he could watch the flames.

"We're not the only ones, you know," he said, setting his bowl aside.

"The only ones?"

"The only ones Les has taken in and made stronger. I think it's something he needs to do sometimes."

"Who else?"

"Well, Tux for one. Les found him when he was just a tiny kitten, down in the duck pond on the golf course over there. The poor thing was just lying in the water, hardly alive. I guess someone threw him away there, thinking he'd drown. Anyway, Les waded into the pond and got him out. Brought him home, cleaned him off and took care of him. I was sure the little guy wasn't going to make it but Les knew he would. And he did. Just like me."

It was no wonder Tux was so loyal to Les. Just like Eric, I thought to myself. "Are there more?" I asked.

Eric collected the ice cream bowls and put them on the tray. "Dr. Langford."

"You're joking. Dr. Langford?"

"Well, she's a kind of special case but yeah, her too, in a way." He pushed the tray aside and poured the last of the wine in our glasses. I was beginning to feel a little giddy from it but didn't stop him. I wanted to hear the story.

"She wasn't hurt or anything but... I don't know, maybe she was. At any rate, she came down here to get away from her father. I guess she didn't want to get away too far but this is far enough. She was a mousy little thing, shy and kind of, well, drab I guess you'd say. Her father wouldn't let her wear makeup and never let her be around guys any. Right after she started working at the hospital she met Les and I guess it was love at first sight." He laughed and shook his head. "No, it was lust at first sight but they didn't know that, then. Anyway, after a time with him she'd changed into the woman you see now."

I found it hard to believe that the self confidant, vivacious--and let's face it, very pretty--doctor had once been mousy and shy. I said as much to Eric.

"It didn't happen overnight, and maybe Les didn't mean for it to happen at all. But it happened and I know it happened because Les helped her find it inside herself. That's just the way he is. You know, it's what he does in his work, too."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I asked him once, about just what he does in there with those computers and phones and stuff. He said he fixes things. He takes programs other people have written, ones that don't work right, and he rescues them, makes them so they can do what they're supposed to do." He shrugged. "That's pretty much what he does with people. And cats."

As if on cue, Tux came strolling into the room and, ignoring us entirely, went to investigate the ice cream bowls. He tossed a hurt look at Crash--who had already taken care of them--and jumped up on the hearth where he curled up squarely in front of the fire.

"You know," Eric said, "seeing Tux like that makes me think we ought to be doing the same. It's getting pretty late and you need your rest."

I agreed. The wine had made me very mellow and my eye lids were becoming almost too heavy to keep open. Eric helped me up and sent me off to bed.


Comments always appreciated and always answered.

Greg Bowden