By A.H. Watson
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your Laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Kahlil Gibran, poet: 1883-1931(The last good Muslim)
"Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength. These walls we build around us to keep out the sorrow - also keep out the joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight."
Somewhere in the world the sun had begun to shine. But from the half-covered porch overlooking the small stream, one could only see the white underside of the Poplar leaves on the far bank fluttering in the growing breeze.
With the moving air came the unfettered mixture of comforting Southern scents. The easily identified pungency of rich loam, a light essence of molded hay and the slight piquant odor of salt marsh driven some one hundred miles; all on the wings of the coming storm.
If a man is fortunate a few times in his life he will be alone in a receptive state when a proper storm seeks him out. I have been fortunate enough, thanks to the beach and mountain cabin, to have - using the time worn phrase - experienced "oneness with nature."For a proper storm, two additional things are required. A man must be alone, and he must be receptive to thoughts deeply hidden in ones soul ? hidden, but retained there for years, in many cases. I thought about those lines from "The Prophet." Each storm uncovers old pain.
Funny, when young, you find Gibran and think his work brilliant as it meets your somewhat naïve and simplistic view of life. In your majority you find yourself embarrassed to quote his works or even, caught out, thinking of them. Yet, in your dotage you have come full term and see the simple beauty and correctness of his many takes on the nature of man.
Yes, happiness can be found only in those cups carved from the flint and rocks of a life lived. This probably explains the misery and unhappiness of most young today?they have been pampered to the detriment of ever experiencing true happiness. How in the hell would any of the over spoiled little wussies know - if happiness should slap them in the nose.
The rains start with a random, slow staccato beat - fat drops hitting the blistering hot wooden deck much as Gene Krupa's sticks against the rim in "Pennsylvania 6-5000" - Then building to a fast crescendo, just as Krupa's would? chasing the sideman's licks.
From slow drops, to a flood, the deck is soon overwhelmed. The sharp beat of the rain soon mellows, not from less rain - but more. In spite of the openings between the boards the water soon builds a thick sheen on the deck. The sound is muted to the wind and blowing curtains of water.
As the water marches down the creek, each sheet mere yards apart, it seems so well ordered that, in some chaotic way, it looks alive ? free of the encumbrances of duty borne by tradition, normal, rain.
Faintly, between the lines of marching rain, I can see Sam ensconced upon his own small porch on the converted covered bridge. He is looking straight up stream, lost no doubt in his own remembrances of things past of - "things done, and ought not to have done." You can always count on an Episcopalian priest to leave you with a reason to return the next week ? must have learned it from the Catholics.
John Jr.? The Judge? Is he somewhere in his rambling abode on the other side of the creek wrestling his own demons? Wrestling no doubt, in his own time, his own way ? after checking to see if the demons would take him out to the bream bed?
I can see it now, when the devil comes for that ornery old man, he will say.
"Err? you there, Devil #1. You don't mind if I call you that do you?" Then without stopping to listen?
"You hook up the skiff. You there #2, don't just stand around with your mouth open, go out by the garage and dig some worms. We can get the crickets on the way to the pond."
It is the lightning that is the catalyst. It quickly brings you back to point. It keeps one from wading in the shallow mental pools of self-excuse or minimization of one's faults.
A proper storm drives the bolts of energy close. If you can hear the thunder you are in a spring shower. In a righteous storm the lighting cracks! There is no thunder just the smell of ozone? or the devil passing close.
If you have prepared well for these moments you are sitting at the drip line from the overhead shed like roof. Your back is covered by a lap robe or an old London Fog with it's oily stained collar and empty belt loops. The cold air falls from on high, wringing the moisture from the laden clouds, then spreads along the ground dropping the temperature into the seventies or lower. Each hair on your arm will be individually outlined in mist. If you look closely there will be tiny microscopic droplets of water on your shorts and the old alligator shirt.
The crash of near lighting is backed by the booms from the more distant; the rush of wind and rain; the almost constant flashes on the distant horizon outline the tall pines. It transports the mind, and then seemingly the body, to the wet foliage and leeches of Southeast Asia?or a slog through the bog of an Italian winter - even Verdun for those remaining few.
Once that penance is paid other thoughts, long repressed, will bubble to the surface. The woman desperately needed - you never kissed good-by? for the evening shared. The smart-ass 'Joe Cool' response given when asked about her later.
The "loves" never appreciated - The "likes" never fully explored. The evil never confronted. The good never achieved.
That is - if you are lucky they will surface - not return to be seen only in a hesitant word, unstoppable tic or random headache.
The truth may not set one free, but it allows one to heal, to meet the demons, to gain the strength, perchance, to defeat them in open battle.
There have been many potholes in the road leading back to my youth? mostly self-dug. I am sure that most would find that true in their own lives. One hole so deep, so dark, that the scars still stand in testament to my failure. I caused the Judges sons' death - as surely as had I set the trap that took his life.
I returned from my war with the slant-eyed devils, that would in an astonishing few years become, not only the supplier of most Wal-Mart items, but the answering service for our entire nation. Rather sizable frogs in the small proverbial puddle of just what things are worth ? at least when it comes to dying.
I truly doubt that many would vote to include dying to make Vietnam safe to build cheap American products, a worthy reason.
It was my suggestion to the Judge at the time, him having growing trouble with his 16 year old son, that he have him spend two years gaining life skills from life's best instructor ? the Marines. It seemed unlikely to me that with the war's end in sight that the boy would find other than the normal dangers life presents.
I was wrong. The child was "In country" less than two days, and one day before the cease-fire - when killed by a thin wire strung across the jeep trail to the HQ. His personal gear had not been shipped up country before his young body passed it? on the long trail home.
For a year I drank. I ran with women that had dubious designs upon my person. I could not pass John on the street nor look him in the eye. I grieved to a depth I had never felt before? or hence. There was no health in me.
We had not been close during those years. I was overseas, John was a member of the oldest law firm in the county? his Grandfathers. Almost a year after his son's death, John and I met at the pond and discussed our feelings. From that sorry time grew the friendship of a lifetime.
In the mist and the rain I was swallowed whole by my own thoughts. Lost to the present, I visibly jerked when Sam said,
"Earth to Mars. Can you read me?"
"Not really, Sam, I was wandering around in the dregs of my misspent youth trying to right old wrongs or remember the advice of my better angels."
"Well, I knew you were somewhere, 'cause I been here five minutes and even asked twice if'n you wanted a cup of hot tea. How can you think in all that noise? Looks like the Judge is on his way over too. Least looked that way when I left?unless he stands around in the rain often by himself."
"Well, I have know him to sit all day in the pouring rain over a bream bed, but not just stand there? looking up, as he is now. Ah! He sees us and is coming."
"Morning Boys, quite a blow we had earlier. You two didn't melt did you?"
"No, but my wife would have - looking at you? Why is it that you come up the steps; walk across the deck; step over the mat under the overhang; come in? and the first damn thing you do is stomp your feet to get rid of the mud, leaves and other shit?"
"Hell, habit I guess.
You telling me that you have been pissed about that for FORTY YEARS? I would like to have a dollar?. no, a nickel, for every time you have come in my kitchen leaned over, head in the refrigerator door until the butter melted - then ended your forage by sucking down some milk - right out of the bottle!"
"Well, I never left no puddle of milk and butter on the floor, like that shit you drag in on your boots and deposit on my den floor."
Smiling Sam entered the fray. "Girls ? Girls ? Girls, let's not fuss and spoil our nails or those little forehead curls." Almost in unison the two old men turned on Sam in one voice? (Henny) "God damn it Sam shut?" (the Judge) "Mind your own bus?"
"Been over at the house thinking, Sam. Did I ever tell you about the one female I loved more? I sometimes think, than life its self? Her name was Nan. Did I tell you?"
"Well now, Sam, Nan was the prettiest thing you ever did see. Wasn't she Hen?"
(The real difference between a deep friendship and a normal one can be judged partially by how many times a man will take part in a friend's story?even if he has heard it a thousand times. Not only listen, but also like the Greek chorus of old, be drawn into and a part of the story. And the Judge used me wantonly in this oft-told tale.)
"That's right Sam she was a real beauty. Skin the color of cream with light brown freckles." I then cut my eyes at the Judge and gave him the wanest of smiles.
"Sam, we were young, Nan and myself. Remember, if you can, things were different out in the country years ago. I can't believe it, but if she did something very wrong, I would make her sleep in the garage overnight." John shook his white mane and sighed from the depths? in real contrition. "I still can't believe she didn't run off with some 'Drummer' passing by the house."
"Tell him Hen, about the time she did so poorly I wouldn't give her any dinner. She just stood there begging with her dish in hand and I made her wait on the porch while I finished my supper alone. Go on just you tell Sam how butt headed I was when I was young and just married."
"Can't do no better than you just did, John." It's true Sam, all true. Hell, that one night he even made her eat her food once he gave it to her - slap dab Cold!
Sam had that look a man might get when told his house and garage had burned to the ground ? but they had managed to save his lawnmower!
"Was she mad Henny; did she ever fight back or run away?"
"No Sam, that is the part that is so hard to handle, she loved him the whole time and would seldom leave his presence."
"Old Hen is right Sam, she stuck with me through thick and thin. I never realized how much I loved her till it was too late. It broke my heart but I would like to think I have never made that mistake again."
"Got to go."
"Best I practice, need to do a little gavel work before court tomorrow. Us judges got to look our best you know." And with those remarks the Judge turned and tracked his way out the way he had come ? spreading leaf, and other remnants of the storm, on his way.John was not well out the door before Sam turned to me.
"I gott'a admit Hen, that sort of takes the bloom off the rose with the Judge - for me. I have always held him above most when it comes to decency and integrity. But to hear this is off putting - to use your language."
"Well Sam, put your worries in your pocket. That old reprobate's favorite woman also had a cold nose and multiple tits.
"God Henny! She were' handicapped as well?"
"Not exactly, Sheriff." Henny still used Sam's old title even in his retirement.
"She was the finest Setter this state has ever seen, and loved John Jr. more than any woman. Yes, John felt the same. It was the sweetest thing to watch.
After his boys' death, Nan was the closest thing too real love he was to feel ever again. If you value his friendship never mention Nan or the Judge unless invited. Even being part of it I walk very carefully around that still living hurt in his soul."
Sam, I am telling you what comes next because you need to know; Especially now that the Judge has mentioned Nan. Listen cause it won't be spoken of again.
When I came back from my war, it was at its end. Both nations were in Paris working out the peace. Who would ever think it would take over a year, with the killing continuing.
John and I were not personal friends, age difference is more meaningful when young. Then there was the war and Law School. Like so many children of the powerful or rich, the children seem unable to find themselves or when they do they find that they are nothing but little shits!
John JR's son was a perfect match for the shit part.One day he asked how I had turned out (evidently good) coming from a similar background. I told him it was genes, hard work, and an overwhelming belief in a Redeeming God. 'Course the giggle started before I finished. The Judge, not one to suffer fools happily, walked off muttering. I was sort of laughing at the Judge over coffee at Rosie's when she pulled me aside and read me the riot act.
"Henny you unthinking fool!
Then she told me why?
One: In a small town nobody liked a smart ass - that I best get my fanny back to an area full of assholes? and suggested Atlanta.
Two: she mentioned that my little green racing machine and the Judge would most likely get to know each other well, as the posted speed limit in town was 15-25 mph and I had not ever dropped to that speed? even when I parked out front.
"Sugar you best get your sorry ass over to his office and find some way to allow him to save face ? or move to Greenland." I still hold that it was the best advice I ever received.
Sam, I learned that day that what a person knows - is not critically important.
Lots of people know lots of things. There is always someone that knows more than you about any subject. What is important ? knowing about others; what they know; why it is important to them, and how to use that information to both's benefit.
All Judges are a little tight skinned about being so. The are made that way by the lawyers laughing at every joke, both good and bad. They become comfortable in being saved the best seat at any event that includes invitations to the college President's clubroom at football games; plus the additional fanny smooching they get from all quarters.
That day in John Jr's office for the first time I was straight in my answer. Later I was amazed just how easy it tended to be, and the acceptance my poor words received.
I told John that my heartless words and attitude came from my deep guilt about coming back whole from that frightening place. I further told him that I didn't realize that he was truly troubled about his son and wanted honest, straight answers from someone that should have real knowledge about the young.
I asked that he forgive me. Strange but he looked up with a tear on his cheek, and with no deep embarrassment, told me that as a judge he often received excuses, often praise, even gifts, but that it was the first time since taking office any soul had stood before him and asked for true forgiveness?and actually seemed contrite.
Aware that the Secretary of State was in Paris, I suggested that the Marines were the best way to change the nature of the young careless male. If it didn't work ? there was always jail. I was wrong and it cost John the life of his son.
Sam, weeks after the news of his sons' death - the day before the shooting stopped, his clerk called one afternoon worried that the Judge had not shown up for court. The local lawyers were quiet as mice but the Atlanta crowd on safari to the uncharted regions were yapping like wet magpies.
Sam, as a public employee you no doubt noted that John's clerk, Tommy Felker, called me ?not the Judge. It is so typical to type. If I call then his skirts are clean; could even mean a promotion!
I crossed the rock stepping-stones - this was before you were made sheriff and your home floated down stream to its present position ? entered and called for John.
I found him asleep (and will stand by that) with his head on Nan's dog pillow and her chin resting on his shoulder awake, but looking at me as if saying don't you dare wake him?we have had a long hard night. So I just fixed coffee and waited until John stirred.
From that week the two of them were not to be separated, court, chambers, Rosie's ? where it was necessary to post a sign saying not to feed either Nan or the Judge !
As the pair grew older, Nan could not take the rigors of our normal quail hunting. The Judge dropped out. He started hunting on Nan's terms. He would pick a dirt road running besides fields of corn or beans with a fence line covered with brush. John would walk down the side of the road after putting Nan on the field side of the fencerow. They would walk softly along talking to each other when Nan pointed a covey John would kick up the birds and shoot just one. Nan with her eyesight and nose both rapidly failing would look for the bird ? having no idea just where the bird went down. The judge, who the day before might have given a housewife and mother 25 years to life, would climb the bank and walk towards the bird ?CAREFUL not to find it himself?until Nan picked up the scent and gleefully found the bird and presented it to John.
No need to mention how smart Nan was, her mind was somewhat between that of the average teen-ager and a smart Democrat. But just so you can envision how Nan might compare to dogs you have owned or worked behind in a field.
Nan had three separate tail positions when setting quail. If her tail was straight down it told the Judge that the quail were right in front of her?close. If her tail was straight out behind her, it meant the covey was further out? some ten yards or more. But if it were straight up, it meant the covey was some damn Arizona mix that would creep away rather than fly and for the Judge to get his butt out front quick if he wanted to get a shot.
They had both gotten "too old to hunt," as the Judge would say while brushing Nan after one of the "dirt road hunts." "Henny Son," he would add, as I watched, "Nan has picked up a new trick as of late. When the road dips a bit, or the fence line rises above my head going up hill, damn if Nan don't wait for me to pass by then jump up and flush the birds behind me."
"Her nose gotten that bad, Huh? Seems a shame as much as she loves to hunt."
"Truth is Hen she never loved to hunt, she just knew I did. I thought it was her nose, as well, but then I went up to where she had flushed the birds and looked down toward where I would have stood at the time. Hell, unless I was very careful, and my eyes ain't that damn good themselves, if I had shoot old Nan would be picking out birdshot all evening."
"Bless that animal, she was hunting to make me happy, but she was watching out for her fine fanny, as well."
It wasn't long after, that perhaps, John's saddest day came.
Nan had come out of the dog box slowly and at the tailgate pawed the air unable to see the ground. John had lifted her from the truck and Nan started up the bank and under the fence. He started to walk then heard a pitiful yelp.
Running back he found Nan caught in the briars with blood pouring from a barbwire cut above her cloudy eye. Shaking and whimpering all of her weight collapsed in his arms.
About ten that evening, for the second time in ten years, John's clerk called; Said the Judges phone had been out all evening.
When I arrived, John was in the Den, hanging loosely from his hand was an old colt. His shirtfront and arm were splattered with blood. On her fancy pillow was Nan - forever dead.
My own pain, for both John and myself, was such that I never attempted to speak to my friend. He was in a place I could never go.
"So you see Sam, not only must your happiness reside in the crevasses made by pain. You can have such pain that there is no room for happiness. John had great happiness in his life but the pain required to hold it all was just too great to leave room for others."
Sam was never to know?
I did take the pistol from his hand and return it to the cabinet. I could not help but notice it contained two shells one spent ? one ready for its next assignment. I removed them both: but in all these years have never ever asked.
©2008 A.H. Watson, all rights reserved.