Too Quick To Judge

The first time I saw him I was making my way through the jam-packed crowd in terminal A on my way to find number 33, the departure gate for my flight from Missoula to Denver. I was in my usual self-important hurry and he was walking so incredibly slow that I had to pass him on my right. Silently cursing this rude jerk for having the gall to be in my way, here’s what I noticed as I came up from behind: an old guy with a cane, wearing a sharp looking gray Stetson under which flowed long white hair down to the middle of his shoulder blades. He had a stocky build, a good four inches shorter than me, and was wearing black jeans, hiking boots, a cream colored long sleeve shirt with brown Navajo designs on it and a dark brown leather vest. I glanced at him as I passed and noticed his beard was long and white, too, just like his hair. He had a small backpack slung over one shoulder and, to be honest, he looked like an old, but clean, miner from the California Gold Rush era.

A few minutes after getting by him I found my gate but continued walking all the way to the end of the terminal before turning around to head back. I was restless and was trying to burn off some nervous energy. I stopped to use the restroom, went into a gift shop where I bought two small bags of healthy snacks and browsed around, pondering longer than necessary whether or not to buy a Mad magazine before deciding not to, and then got a drink from a drinking fountain – all before making my way back to gate 33 where I found a place to sit down. I put my light jacket in my small carry on, pulled out a paperback and stuck my nose in it, unsuccessfully trying to lose myself in the story of a mountain man crawling across the great plains in 1823. It was a good story, a good “read” as they say, but I’d been having an unsettling past twenty-four hours which I’m sure contributed to my inability to focus. In short, I didn’t get much reading done. I’d also completely forgotten about the old guy.

When my boarding group was called I stood up, positioned myself at the end of a slow moving line and five minutes later showed my ticket to the agent, making sure to avoid eye contact even though he greeted me with a friendly, “Hi, there.” I gave him a curt nod in return. I fly a lot and like to keep my interactions with people to a minimum when traveling, just on general principles (or anytime else, for that matter.) Then I made my way through the boarding tunnel, onto the plane and down the aisle scanning the row numbers until I finally found mine, just in front of the wing. I stowed my travel bag in the overhead bin and sat down in the narrow aisle seat, glancing to the left at the man next to me by the window. It was him.

He had been studying something outside, but turned as I seated myself and acknowledged my presence with a friendly greeting.

“Hi,” he said, as I fastened my seat belt. He smiled and indicated out the window, “Nice day…” like you would say as a statement not a question.

I took a look, just to be polite, although I knew what my response would be after having just an hour and a half earlier come in from outside where the sun was shining and the temperature was a balmy sixty-three degrees. What I saw now was that it was late afternoon, and the sun was about an hour from setting – that’s all I noticed.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, cryptically, only wanting to keep this interaction as brief as possible. Who knew what kind of a fruitcake this guy was, looking like he did?

I opened my book to make my intensions clear:  no more conversation would be forthcoming from me.

He seemed to get my point as he, too, settled back and reached for a book (one of two I hadn’t noticed until just then) that he had slipped into that pouch thing on the back of the seat in front of him. Now, I’m an avid reader and, I couldn’t help myself, but I was suddenly interested in what it was – a novel, perhaps? Non-Fiction? Mystery? Self-help?

So curious was I, in fact, that I nearly popped my eyeballs out of their sockets, keeping my head straight ahead pretending to read, while casting my eyes to the left to see what the title was as he transferred his book from the seat back to his lap. Two things struck me: one, he didn’t, like ninety-five percent of the other passengers on the plane, immediately plug into an electronic device of some sort and immerse himself in a mind numbing game of solitaire or grumpy cat or something, and two, the book wasn’t a novel (like I was reading) or anything even remotely close to what I had only moments before taken a wild guess at. Instead, it was a book of poems by an native American poet – a guy semi-well known and popular enough that even I had heard of him. To say I was intrigued would be putting it mildly and, I have to say, I was more than a little interested.

But interested enough to  start a conversation with him after I had surely somewhat rudely put him off with my curt comment about the weather? Yes or no? That was the question. One I had no immediate answer for, so why belabor the point? I put the matter aside, kept my mouth shut and settled in with my own book while trying to ignore the chatter of the flight attendant, the incessant gabbing of the couple across the aisle and the baby two rows back who was crying non-stop. It was shaping up to be a long and arduous flight, not only stressful but also nerve-wracking.

The plane taxied to the runway and eventually took off, lifting us into a sky that, when I casually glanced out the window to look, was so stunningly blue it was almost surreal. It even impressed me and let me tell you, I’m not easily impressed by Nature. This time, however, I was and, despite my somewhat cantankerous mood, I spent more than a few pleasurable moments enjoying a panoramic view of the surrounding snow covered mountains that unexpectedly took my breath away.

I’m from Minnesota, known as the land of ten thousand lakes. The highest point in our state is Eagle Mountain (2,391 feet), located in the Boundary Waters on the Canadian border. The only way to get to it is by canoe in the summer or snowshoe in the winter which eliminates it being seen by nearly everyone in the world except only the few hardy souls willing enough to brave the elements to get there, a group I am not a member of. So the view out the window was spectacular, that was for sure, and I watched the vistas unfolding with increasing wonder as the plane climbed to thirty-five thousand feet. My ears popped three times. But the point is, I liked the scenery and I might have even consented to talking to the gold miner next to me about the majestic mountains and pristine snow and the very wondrous beauty of Nature and the natural world and all of that but I couldn’t. He had fallen asleep before we’d taken to the air, his book of poetry resting in his lap – hence my opportunity to enjoy the view privately, unencumbered by human interaction, an opportunity I gladly seized upon.

When the plane leveled off I realized I was tired so I closed my book and my eyes and rested while next to me the gold miner peacefully slept. I was left alone with my thoughts which usually wasn’t a good thing but this time was surprisingly benign because, I have to say, there was something comforting about being next to the guy. Something calming, I guess, would be the way to put it, which was strange because I don’t normally feel that way toward other people. Well, never feel that way is closer to the truth, so I took it for what it was; an anomaly, and didn’t think too much more about it.

I was on my way to visit my brother in Arizona after spending a quick trip the day before driving around Flathead Lake in northern Montana. This was the fifth year I had made such a journey from Long Lake, my little hometown in Minnesota – something I was finding myself doing on a yearly basis. The main reason to go to Flathead was to touch base (as I referred to it) with my mother, whose ashes my brother and I and two sisters had scattered on the lake as part of a request she had made of things to do for her after she had died.  A request we dutifully honored. That was six years ago.

I’d flown into Missoula the day before, rented a car and driven up the east side of the lake to Woods Bay, the spot where we had chosen to scatter her remains. I spent the afternoon in a meditative mood, sitting at a picnic table in the bright sunshine, listening to the waves lap on the rocky shore and remembering my mom, the lady who singlehandedly raised me and my younger brother and two younger sisters after our dad left when we were all below the age of twelve. In my mind she was a remarkable woman who not only was a single parent, but one who also worked long hours as a receptionist for a successful law firm in Minneapolis, all the while trying to teach her children the value of hard work – something she demonstrated both in her words and her actions. She also believed in helping those less fortunate than we were (for many years she donated four hours a week to the Braille Institute of Minneapolis) and thus instilled in us at a young age a strong moral compass. I never once heard her complain. She died at the age of seventy-eight from congestive heart failure, and she is still missed by the people she came in contact with, family and friends and co-workers alike. I never tire of remembering her and if I sound like I’m still mourning her and still miss her, I can’t help it because it’s certainly true. The fact that I probably haven’t lived up to her high standards is definitely my fault, not hers.

Yesterday was a little different from previous visits because I found myself spending more time than usual contemplating my life – a life that, to be honest, has been unremarkable in every possible way that there is even though I spend a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince myself that it isn’t. Truth be told, however, the sad fact of the matter is that it is; a fact that once again reared its ugly head, this time to me on the shores of picturesque Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

I am fifty three, work as a sales rep (it says ‘Sales Consultant’ on my business card) for a nationally recognized pharmaceutical company that I’m not going to name because of pending lawsuits regarding one of our blood pressure medications. I can’t stand working for them, yet I still do because I don’t have the gumption to get off my butt and look for something else.

I’ve been married and divorced twice and have three grown children from my first marriage that I have only distant relationships with. Now that I think about it, that’s being generous, because I hardly ever talk to them let alone see them, so I guess no relationship would be closer to the point.

Let’s see: hate my job, divorced twice, and a lousy father to boot. In short, I’m your typical middle aged American male failure.

I had spent the night in Big Fork on the north end of the lake at a Holiday Inn where I made the unfortunate decision to alternate drinking local craft beers with Black Russians at the Lakeview Restaurant while watching a boring early season baseball game on the big screen television that took up most of the wall at one end of the crowed, noisy bar. I can’t remember who won. Also, I should say that I spent the last part of the evening in the company of a lovely young woman named Jenny whose last name she never told me but who was gone when I woke up in the morning, leaving me with a splitting hangover and two hundred dollars poorer. I also found myself, once I started coming around and begun sipping on the first of many cups of bad coffee, feeling strangely alone and out of sorts because the fact of the matter was, I was – on both counts.

So I was in a glum and somewhat depressed mood when I drove back to Missoula to the airport and dropped off my rental and made my way inside, through security, and eventually to look for my gate. For some reason seeing the slow walking old guy looking like a gold miner just pushed me over the edge and got me going. Who was he to take up space and impede my progress to my gate, acting so hippy-dippy, and, as they say, “together?” I’m sure he bothered me because I was such the complete opposite, with my slightly wrinkled kakis and button down powder blue dress shirt, dress shoes, neatly trimmed short brown hair and smooth shaven face.

I know I shouldn’t have been thinking like that but I was. And, sure, I’ll give you that the view of the mountains during take-off had truly been spectacular, but that was beside the point. Now all that pissed off mood from earlier was coming back to me and, let me tell you, it was getting my blood boiling. Here he was dozing in the seat next to me, smelling of Patchouli and being super mellow, making my life miserable. The more I thought about it the more pissed off I became. I glanced over at him and gritted my teeth. Thank god he was still asleep or I might have really given him a piece of my mind.

To try to get out of my bad mood, I leaned over to look out the window again, hoping the view would calm me but instead it did the opposite. The crystal clear blue sky was gone, replaced by a socked in world of clouds. And not the nice, smooth, pillow-like clouds you sometimes see when you’re cruising above them at a high altitude and the sun is shining down on them making the world look soft and peaceful. No. These were thick, gray clouds and the plane was flying right through them so all I saw were wet wisps of gray streaming by the window. My thought was that they might have rain in them and could potentially be dangerous. And then, as if to verify my suspicion, the plane at that very moment went through heavy turbulence, bouncing and shaking, causing more than a few passengers to gasp. The fasten seat belt sign came on. I held my breath and tried to maintain my composure. It wasn’t easy but I did my best and was rewarded when, a few moments later, all returned to normal. I looked out again. One thing was certain, the clouds hid my view of the mountains and made the world look depressing and closed in. Claustrophobic. I couldn’t see a thing. Then the plane started shaking again and dropped a couple of hundred feet. My stomach tuned over and I grabbed both arm rests. Saliva flowed into my mouth as a precursor to throwing up. I certainly wasn’t going to do that, no sir. I held on and got control of myself. In a minute the feeling passed and so did the shaking, both the plane’s and mine, much to my relief.

With the plane leveling off, I began to regain my composure, but one was certain, any chance for me to mellow out like my neighbor on my left had vanished. He was still peacefully sleeping and breathing deeply. How the hell could he do that with all the shaking and rattling and rolling and dropping and what not that had been going on? I felt my blood pressure rise. He was beginning to piss me off again. Then I had the thought that maybe it’d be raining in Denver where I was to pick up my connecting flight to Las Vegas. Perfect, I thought sarcastically, that’s all I needed to add to my already bad mood. A rocky, bumpy ride for the rest of my trip; both into and out of Denver. Go ahead, I thought to myself, make my day and rain on my friggin’ parade while you’re at it. What a messed up flight, not to mention past twenty-four hours.

I turned back to my book, hoping to lose myself in the story. The baby two seats back, who had mercifully quieted down during take-off and been quiet ever since, started up crying in earnest, wailing at the top of its lungs with barely a letup to gasp for breath. Sure, why not?

Before attempting to read, though, I glanced at the gold miner once more. He was wearing something on his right wrist I hadn’t noticed before – a bracelet made of big amber looking beads, each one separated by a smaller, dark red bead. The contrasting colors were  actually kind of pretty, I had to admit, but on a man? Come on, who was he kidding? I shook my head and sighed, wondering at what the hell could possibly cause some people to do the things they did.

Then I went back to my book, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the ever greater pissed off feeling growing in my chest. After a while I gave up and gave in to being just plain mad.

I must have dozed off.

“Hey, buddy.”

From somewhere nearby a voice was calling to me.

“Hey, there. Hey buddy.”

I felt a gentle, but nevertheless irritating poke in the left muscle of my arm (interrupting, I might add, a rather risqué dream that included Jenny and a chocolate ice cream sundae.) In a quick moment I came to, waking up with a start and my first thought was: I’m going to kill that friggin’ idiot next to me – that crazy old gold miner.

Now I’m not a violent person, but I had not been having a particularly good day and I guess I was set to explode. His gentle nudge lit my fuse and it was like everything suddenly seemed to come tumbling down on me all at once. I clenched my fists, tensed myself up and jerked my head to my left, ready to rain some serious hurt down on the old guy, starting with giving him a huge piece of my mind.

But I never got around to it. Something happened right then at that very instant to suddenly change the mind that I had only moments before been so eager to give up a piece of, and I held back. I blinked, and blinked again, feeling myself calming down. I felt my fists involuntarily unclench. It was something about the old gold miner – he wasn’t reacting to my sudden rather aggressive motions at all. In fact, just the opposite. He was doing nothing but smiling. That’s all he was doing. Just smiling at me and, I have to say, it was quite disarming.

If that old guy knew the thoughts that only moments before had been running through my brain, I’m sure his grin would have vanished in the blink of an eye. But I made an instantaneous decision not to say anything, and the reason I did was because instead of engaging me in dreaded conversation he did the exactly the opposite. Without a word he silently motioned to his left and leaned back to make room, encouraging me to look out the window. I followed his calm instruction and looked, surprised to find that while I had slept evening had begun to settle in. Through the vanishing twilight I could see that the clouds had disappeared and the sky had turned a soft, muted magenta, a pinkish and purple wash of color that was quite beguiling. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see there was enough residual light left outside to view a range of snow capped mountains that stretched all the way to the horizon – mountains rolling on and on off into the distance as far as the eye could see. The last, fading light of day was illuminating their snowy summits, brushing them with a mellow golden afterglow, softly like an artist might finish a canvas with a gentle flourish.

I might have gasped a little as I came fully awake and began to look in earnest. It was really was a stunningly beautiful sight, one both otherworldly and profound. Something unexpected clicked inside me. I was suddenly glad he had taken a chance to awaken me. Me, a fellow traveler who had previously been so dismissive and rude, and certainly not deserving of the kindness put forth by him to awaken me to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But instead of being gracious, me being me, all I could think of to say was, “Nice,” even though I was unable to pull myself away from the spectacular view thousands of feet below. I did, however, feel my unwarranted dislike of the guy vanishing somewhat, mitigated by the relentless beauty parading by outside the window.

“If you think  that’s cool,” he said, “Check out the lights,” he leaned close to the window and pointed past my head.

I looked. Way below down in a valley between the mountains, where it was already getting dark, a single light was illuminating the ground around it with a the soft glow of a Dickensian street lamp at dusk. It was the last thing I expected to see. What was the deal with it?

He taped me on the shoulder and pointed, “Look to the right.”

I did and guess what I saw? Another light, and again, all by itself. And then I looked further and saw more of them, single solitary lights spaced a mile or maybe more apart, scattering throughout the mountain wilderness standing all by themselves, with no outbuildings or any kind of inhabitation to be seen.

“Interesting,” is what I said, suddenly at a loss for words due to my conflicted feelings. Here I was five minutes earlier preparing myself to go crazy all over the guy, but now, instead, I was finding myself slowly but ever so surely warming to him.

“What do you suppose the deal is with them?” he asked, exactly echoing my thought of just a minute earlier. Maybe we were sort of on the same wavelength, a thought which I found not so much troubling as slightly intriguing, given the obvious fact that we were so completely different.

“I don’t know,” was all I could think of to say.

I sat back, pulling my eyes away from the lights and the mountains, this one of a kind spectacle I’d never witnessed before, and for the first time took a seriously good look at his face. It was weather beaten and serene, that was for sure, and tan, too, like he spent a lot of time outdoors; no doubt happy times, I imaged, tromping through sunny mountain meadows past rushing mountain streams. His eyes were blue and friendly and, I kid you not, they actually twinkled when he smiled, kind of like Santa Claus is supposed to do when you’re a kid and you’re wrapped up in the wonder of Christmas and the spirit of the season. I caught myself, right then, wondering if there was something wrong with me, because I don’t normally think thoughts like that. But I couldn’t help it, his face had broken into the friendliest smile I’d seen in a long, long time, if ever.

“Me, neither,” he said. Just hearing his soft but rich and luxurious voice was having an effect on me. I could feel myself relaxing more and more, becoming calmer.

“I can’t imagine what it’d be like to live out in the middle of nowhere like that,” I told him, breaking my vow never to talk with strangers and opening myself up to further conversation.

He nodded his head sagely, agreeing, “I hear you. It’d certainly be a challenge that’s for sure.” He looked for my affirmation and I tipped my head in agreement. He smiled some more and then stuck out his hand, “Nice to chat with you. My name’s Josh. Josh Jacobson.”

An hour ago, when I first sat down, you couldn’t have paid me to even interact with the guy, let alone shake his hand and touch him. But now without the even slightest hesitation I took his hand and shook it.

“Larry,” I said, “Larry Craig.”

“Pleased to me you, Larry,” he said. A nice, straight forward handshake, not the macho-hand gripping power playing routine my customers (or even my few friends) typically laid on me.

“Same here,” I told him and he smiled again, an open friendly smile and I couldn’t help it, I smiled back and immediately felt like I’d done the right thing.

Now I’m not one to actively go out and engage people in idle conversation. I mean, really, what’s the point? Sure, I’m in sales, and I’m pretty good at making small talk and all the BS that goes along with it if I do say so myself, but that’s because it usually leads to a sale, a commission and money in my pocket. But right then, ensconced in my narrow seat in a narrow Boeing 727 on the way to Denver International Airport, maybe I was at a low ebb, especially after my melancholy time the day before on Flathead Lake thinking about my mom, and my mental meanderings thinking about my pointless life, and my less than satisfying night with Jenny. But Josh had a way about him, that was for sure, and I found myself being drawn into the warmth of his persona and personality.

“So you’re heading for Denver…” I said, stating the obvious, leaving an opening for him to take the conversation any way he wanted.

“Yes, I’m on my way home,” he told me.

“You were in Montana on vacation?”

“No. I’m on spring break. I work up north of Missoula at the Salish Kootenai College,” he smiled a cross between both sheepish and proud, “I teach math.”

Well, I don’t know what I expected, but for him to say he was a teacher at an Indian college in northern Montana was pretty far down toward the bottom of the list of things I would have guessed at. Even though I tried to hide my surprise, I guess I wasn’t successful.

He chuckled and added, “Not what you’d expected, right?”

I felt my ears redden. “Well…”

He bailed me out, “Don’t worry, Larry. You’re not the only one. It’s not the first thing most people think an old guy like me would be doing.”

Now I was really embarrassed. All I could think to say was, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean anything…”

He held up his hand and cut me off with that disarming smile of his, “Don’t sweat it, really. It’s no big deal.” Then he turned to look out the window. It was nearly dark now.

“Look,” he said, mercifully changing the subject, “It’s easier to see those lights now.”

I leaned over to look as he sat back to give me more space, being courteous and nice and giving me a chance, I think, to make up for me being so quick to judge him. An opportunity I appreciated. I’m positive I wouldn’t have had the grace and certainly not the temperment to do the same thing if the roles were reversed.

“I can see a few more,” I told him and then pressed on, picking up the thread of our earlier conversation, eager to put my faux pas behind us by adding, “Really…” I asked, because now I sincerely was curious about those lights, “…what do you think is going on down there with them?”

Josh chuckled, a soft expression full of warm mirth that must have been extremely comforting to the students in his class struggling with calculus or advanced algebra or whatever else could possibly be taught. Math was never my strong suit in school.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said.

For some reason I found his answer and the way he said it, like he really didn’t have “the faintest idea” and was honest enough to admit it, pretty funny. I laughed out loud, and he joined me, and with our combined laughter any residual tension between us completely melted away and dissipated, leaving a companionable calm in its place.

I pulled myself away from the window and sat back in my seat feeling more at ease and relaxed than I’d been since my drive to Flathead Lake the day before. It was a nice, comfortable feeling – one that I owed all to Josh. And the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that I hadn’t felt as calm and tranquil as I was now feeling in I couldn’t remember how long. I took a deep, cleansing breath, enjoying this new, unexpected experience.

With the ice broken, Josh turned toward me and started talking about his life and I surprised myself by being more than a little interested listening to him – something I don’t ordinary care to do – not unless I get something out of it, like a sale or something. He told me he’d held a number of jobs, all of them what I would refer to as A Little Different. He’d been a surveyor with the Department of Natural Resources for the state of Oregon, and spent his free time out there working with an organization to protect the spotted owl. He’d been a construction worker in Louisiana and, in addition, had donated his time to help rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He’d been a sous-chef for an organic restaurant in New York City, taught sixth grade to inner city kids in Los Angeles and, most recently, volunteered as a caregiver for a hospice organization in Milwaukee.

“My wife is a craftsperson who makes miniature furniture for doll houses,” he said, again with that smile and that twinkle, “She has an on-line shop and more than a few loyal customers so she doesn’t have to stay in one place, which is good because she likes to move around and, as she puts it, “Feel the inspiration of different places.” I’m glad to follow her because I love her and want her to be happy,” he paused and laughed to himself, “Plus, I’m interested in lots of things myself and I’m lucky that I can usually find work wherever we end up, you know, something to do to earn a living.”

God, how interesting! He and his wife were free to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do and follow their own passions. It made my life seem excruciatingly boring and pointless. I’d had the same mind numbing sales job for thirty five years, ever since I’d graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in chemistry and biology and had taken the only job I could get – working for the big, pharmaceutical giant I’m still with, selling prescription drugs under the guise they would help people.

“How’d you get the job teaching math at the college?” I asked, wanting to hear more, and (to be honest) try to put some mental distance between his life and mine.

“Well, it was something I’d always wanted to do. My wife is happy where we are now in Milwaukee. We have our daughter and her kids living nearby and our son is only an hour away. She’s ready to put down some deep roots as she calls it. I tried retirement for about three months after we moved there, but it didn’t suit me. I like to be busy, like to be doing things – doing something good or helpful for other people.” He laughed at himself a little self-consciously, “This is my second year teaching at the college,” he added, “I like it a lot.”

It was now my turn to contribute to the conversation, but what could I say? Tell him how much I money I made selling drugs so doctors could prescribe medication that ninety-nine times out of a hundred didn’t do one single thing to help their patients? That they were really just super expensive placebos that ended up making more money for pharmaceutical industry not to mention the insurance companies? No, it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. And I’ll open my heart up to you right now and tell you why: I didn’t want to talk about my job because the true fact of the matter is that my job was impossible to justify. It’s a pointless occupation that does not do one little bit of good except make the users more dependent on medication while doing barely anything to improve their quality of life. On top of that it makes the executives for the company I work for filthy rich. And I don’t mean to get all philosophical here but I do get a little wound up about it from time to time (like right now) but really, the truth of the matter is that the drugs I sell are legal, but in both the short and long run are of so little value to people that it’s ridiculous. And the fact that I am a small cog in the pharmaceutical wheel that perpetuates it all is embarrassing to admit. So there.

But my job pays my bills, that is true, and it allows me to make a pretty good living, which is also true. So the sad fact of the matter is that my job was all I had, as much as I hated to admit it. I just didn’t feel like talking about it right then or about myself either because, to be blunt, there wasn’t much worthwhile to say. Especially when compared to Josh and the variety of interesting and worthy jobs he’d had. That was painfully evident.

So I did the next best thing. I threw the conversational ball back into Josh’s court. I asked about his wife and his family and he told me his wife’s name was Lynn and they’d been together for forty-eight years. He was seventy-one. They had the aforementioned son and daughter and seven grandkids, all of whom they see regularly.

A successful marriage and a successful family situation and, as far as I was concerned, a successful life. If I compared the two of us (which, believe me, I was doing throughout our entire conversation) I was coming up exceedingly short if not woefully lacking.

He showed me the book he was reading – by the Native American poet – and we talked about the author for a while and he showed me a few of his favorite poems. I even read one, a poem about a golden eagle that was killed after flying into the propeller of a wind turbine, which I was surprised to find very moving and poignant. Then he showed me the other book he had with him, a biography of Carl Linnaeus. “He’s the guy who invented the system for classifying organisms in the natural world,” he said with a sheepish grin. “It’s an interesting book, especially the biology side of it,” he paused for just a tick and then added, “I enjoy gardening and kind of dig plants. No pun, intended.”

I couldn’t help myself, but I laughed out loud. It had been a long time since I’d met such an engaging person. I could have talked with him forever.

Just then the flight attendant’s voice came over the intercom telling us to prepare for our decent into Denver. I checked my watch. Our half hour conversation seemed to compress into about five minutes, time literally having flown by.

We readied ourselves and soon the plane began its final approach with Josh and I comfortably taking turns looking out the window, watching the lights as we drew near to the outskirts of Denver, all the while chatting together amiably about the sights we were seeing and whatever else popped into our minds.

Does everyone compare themselves to others when they first meet and get to know someone new or was it just me? But the more I talked with Josh, the more the feeling returned that my life had been a total and complete waste. I didn’t have a close relationship with a woman. I wasn’t close to my three kids let alone my grandchildren. I not only didn’t like my job, I resented it. All in all, it was rather depressing, to put it mildly. I closed my eyes and involuntarily shuddered, perhaps subconsciously trying to rid myself of the fact that I was a pretty feeble excuse for a human being.

Maybe Josh sensed my mood because just as the landing gear set down and the wheels hit the runway, the plane rattled and shook and for the briefest of instances I thought we might crash. My eyes flew open in panic. He gently reached over and placed his hand on my arm, calming me and relaxing me and said, “Don’t worry, Larry, it’ll be all right.”

What a nice man. He was worried I was freaked out about a crash due to the rough landing because he was a kind and sensitive person. But a plane accident was the furthest thing from my mind right then and it certainly didn’t even come close to the feeling I had – a feeling, not of fear, but one of profound dejection coupled with complete and utter worthlessness. We might also add in a dash of loneliness while we’re at it. I looked over at him, at those gentle eyes and caring expression. His thoughtful words struck a chord in me that I didn’t know I had and I don’t why, but at that moment I did something I hadn’t done since I was a young boy; I started to cry. Not a lot I should be quick to point out but, believe me, there were some tears there.

Now, I’m not an emotional guy. You can ask both my ex-wives and my three kids if you don’t believe me, but trust me, I’m not. I can’t tell you why I broke down that night while taxing across the runway at the Denver International Airport. But I will tell you this, if the roles had been reversed, I certainly wouldn’t have done what Josh did next, which was to do something nice and try to calm me down. But that’s what he did. Me, this complete stranger he had only  just met a few hours earlier. And maybe he had intimated enough in our brief time of getting to know one another not to make a big deal out of it because he didn’t. He simply put his arm around my shoulder (which, coming from this person I’d only known for such a short period of time, was strangely comforting) and did the best thing he could have done – he just sat with me calmly and didn’t say or do anything. He didn’t need to. His mere presence was good enough.

We stayed that way as the plane taxied across the runway. Once at the gate he removed his soothing arm, patted me once on the back and we both sat back in our seats. I was rattled by my behavior, both shaken and a little embarrassed. He kept a careful eye on me as we waited until most of the passengers had disembarked before rising from our seats. I was slowly getting myself together, feeling less guilty about my little tearful episode, but still kind of out of it. He grabbed our bags from the overhead bin (I had completely forgotten about mine) and we joined the last stragglers. I was a little unsteady on my feet but Josh stayed close beside me. The slow walk did me good. In a few minutes we were off the plane, down the enclosed walkway and through the door into the boarding area in the terminal.

If you’ve never been to Denver International, I’ll tell you this, the place is one huge, crowded, chaotic madhouse. I made my way through the boarding area, jam-packed with humanity impatiently waiting for the next flight, and out to the fifty foot wide concourse. It was divided in the middle by a conveyer belt used for the convenience of hauling travelers back and forth upon down the entire length of the long terminal. Most people, however, chose not to participate in such a passive activity and instead hurried up and down the wide aisles, pulling luggage, carrying bags, tried to manage crying children, singles and pairs and groups of travelers, young and old, most of them all-the-while talking loudly on their smart phones, while the intercom blared non-stop with pending flight departures and what to do if you found any unattended baggage…barely controlled chaos would be the way to put it. In addition to my rather tenuous emotional state, I immediately got a splitting headache.

Josh stayed with me as we made our way along the edge of the concourse until we found one of the flight arrival and departures big screens. His flight to Milwaukee left in two hours from terminal A, mine in four hours from the terminal C, the one we were presently standing in.

I have to say that I was still a bit undone from what had happened on the plane. I’d never broken down like that before, and certainly not in front of a stranger, even one with the gentle, soothing nature of Josh. It was all I could do to man up and try to pretend it didn’t happen but, believe me, pretending it didn’t happen was hard because it had. I leaned up against the wall with my pounding headache, closed my eyes, and set about the business of trying to collect myself.

“Are you alright?” Josh asked. We had moved off to the side, out of the way of the streaming crowd, more for our own safety than anything else. “We could go get some coffee or something.”

God, he was such a thoughtful person. I had never met anyone like him before in my entire life. Every guy I knew leaned toward the category of macho-man, always trying to outdo someone else and prove they were better than the rest – you probably know a few of them yourself. Josh was completely different. He was calm, mellow, kind and caring. The type of person there needed to be more of in the world. Then I had an intriguing thought, a rare moment of creative thinking for someone like me. Maybe there were more people like him around. Maybe I just hadn’t taken the time to notice them. Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I was the one who needed to change and be more observant as well as more accepting of others.

Well, who really knew the answer to such a broadly sweeping and philosophic question, and I sure wasn’t going to be pondering it on this particular night in this particular airport. But the more pertinent question was this: was it possible for someone like Josh to have a positive effect on someone like me in such a short period of time? In my bitter, jaded mind I knew the answer was no. Why should he or even could he? He was a man, not a magician. I was the way I was and that was it. End of story. The easiest thing right now would be to just shake his hand and say goodbye and be on my way. Change is hard and takes an excruciating amount of time. (I know. I tried to learn Spanish a few years ago, thinking it would help me make more sales. I finally gave up after a few weeks, finding it too hard and time consuming.)

“Larry…Larry, are you Ok?” Josh finally asked, since it had been a few minutes and I still hadn’t answered his question about going for coffee. He put his hand on my shoulder, comforting me again, wanting to help me. Help I decided I didn’t need.

I quickly opened my eyes and turned to him, puffing myself up a bit, regretting that I had broken down in front of him in the first place. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I told him, “Just a bad day is all. I’ll be Ok once I get on the plane get out to Arizona to see my brother.” It was the best excuse I could come up.

Josh removed his hand and looked at me carefully. I swear I could feel his kindly eyes as they probed deep into my soul, checking my emotional well being. He was such a sensitive person – totally at ease with himself and on a wavelength far removed from mine. His peaceful aura extended outward from his inner spirit like warm sunrays, a calming balm to those willing to accept it. Was I one of those people? Good question and one I pondered for about two seconds before coming up with my answer. No.

I was suddenly uncomfortable with all the touchy-feely stuff and wanted to be rid of him and away from him. “I’m good,” I told him, cryptically, deciding I needed to put an end to this kind of thinking and this kind of conversation. I stepped back to put some space between us.

“You’re sure?” He asked, clearly not believing me, but intuitive enough to know I wasn’t going to budge.

“Yeah, I am,” I said, reverting to my old self and my curt behavior and speech.

“Well, Ok, then,” he said somewhat reluctantly, his eyes blinking rapidly while he searched his mind for a plan. I got the feeling he wanted to say more, to stay and be helpful in any way he could, but, in the end, accepted that I didn’t want or need him to. After a disquieting moment he finally said, “I guess I’ll be going then.”

We shook hands and said our final goodbyes and I appreciated that he didn’t make a big deal out of it. He turned away and walked slowly to the center of the concourse and got on the conveyer belt. When he was situated he turned and waved once with his cane. I waved back and, I have to say, I was sad to see him go but tried not to let it show in my face. I think I might even have mustered a half-hearted smile. In a few minutes the conveyer belt had taken him away and he had disappeared into the crowded terminal.

Wow…what an experience! Both exhilarating and unnerving. Talking to him had exposed feelings I never knew I had, or if I did know I had them, I’d kept them nicely hidden deep inside for many, many years. Which was probably a good thing. If this is what it took to contemplate changing my life to try to become a better person, I was having nothing of it. It was too exhausting.

I dragged my eyes away from the crowd where I’d last seen Josh. It’d been a trying day and I was overly tired not to mention emotionally wrung out. I needed to find a place to sit down and collect myself. At least my headache had mysteriously vanished.

I hunched up my shoulder bag and started walking in the opposite direction from where Josh was headed. In a few minutes I found my gate, but my flight didn’t leave for nearly four hours and I had a lot of time on my hands. I walked past it looking for a place to sit down and kill some time reading, but the airport was packed, even at this late hour, so finding an empty seat was not easy. I checked my watch. It was nearly nine at night. I slowed down and took my time walking, not thinking about much of anything, trying to put thoughts of Josh and my encounter with him out of my mind.

Way down toward the far end of the terminal was a short row maybe seven seats with their backs set up against the protective guard rail of the conveyer belt. This put them out in the middle of the concourse, not the best spot to sit for quiet introspection, but it was the only seating available. At least I was by myself. I sat down, careful to keep my feet placed under my seat and out of the way of travelers hurrying by in both directions. I took my book out with the intension of reading but couldn’t bring myself to do it, my thoughts were too disjointed. Instead, I just sat and stared into space, oblivious to the crowds around me until the noise and the din eventually melted into the background – a kind of silent scream.

I came to with a sudden start, momentarily disorientated. Then I heard a voice over the loud speaker paging someone, reminding me I was in the airport, as if the people walking by in front of me with luggage and backpacks weren’t enough. I yawned and casually checked my watch. What the hell? I had fallen asleep for nearly an hour. My heart rate sky-rocketed and I sat up with a start, silently berating myself for not being more vigilant. Unbelievable. Who knew what could have happened to me? Someone could have stolen by travel bag which contained all my money and personal possessions. I quickly checked under my seat. My bag was still there. Good. I also noticed my book had fallen to the floor so I picked it up, thankful no one had kicked it down the concourse or taken it. I reached into my pocket and checked my boarding pass. Still there. Good. My breathing started to return to normal as did my heart rate. All was well. I looked around, noting that the crowds had thinned remarkably, and settled back, beginning to calm down. I still had nearly two hours to go before my flight was called so all was good. I even felt a little refreshed and more like myself after my nap. I opened my book and settled back to read. Soon I was able to escape for a while to the western plains of long ago. After the day I’d been having, it felt remarkably pleasant to go there.

But my good feeling didn’t last for long. I had hardly read a few pages when a young couple with a small child and a baby bustled in with a harried rush, trailing a scent of a dirty diapers and something sweet and probably sticky. With an entire airport at their disposal they chose to sit down in the same row of seats I was in. Right next to me. How rude. The man couldn’t have been more than twenty-five and was muscular and fit. He had a shaved head and was wearing a white tee-shirt, military green cargo pants and heavy work boots. He also had purple, red and black tattoos up and down both arms and something serpentine tattooed on his neck. My immediate impression was: oh, oh, this guy’s trouble. My immediate thought was: get out of here quick before something bad happens to me.

I was frantically thinking how I could get up and leave without causing a scene when Mr. Tattoo made it a point to catch my eye. “Sorry, man,” he said, “My wife and I and the kids have been traveling all day and we’re pretty tired. Mind if we crash here?” He had an unexpectedly  soft voice, one that had a pleasant tone to it even though he also sounded completely worn out.

“Daddy, I’m tired,” said his little boy at that moment. He was a cute little tow-head, maybe five years old. He was wearing bib-overalls and red tennis shoes – an innocent looking little kid, especially compared to his dad.

The father looked at me again. The fact that he even asked for my permission to sit next to me counted for something in my book. Most people wouldn’t have given a crap.

I thought of Josh. I thought of how I had misjudged him based on his appearance. He had turned out to be completely different from what I had imagined him to be. Then I had another, somewhat more troubling thought, one that came back to me from earlier when I’d said my final goodbye to Josh. Maybe it really was me that was the problem.

I made it a point to move one seat over to the end of the row, giving them more space. “Absolutely,” I said to him. “No problem.” I tried to smile, but I’m sure I failed miserably and ended up cracking, at best, a slight, half assed grin. Like I’ve said, I’m not comfortable with much in the way of social interactions, even on the best of days, and this certainly wasn’t one of my better ones. My encounter with Josh had kind of taken a lot out of me.

Josh…

With a look of relief, the young man turned to his wife (I’m assuming she was, anyway), “Let’s crash here, Amber. This guy seems good with it.”

Amber gave me a thankful look and said to her husband, “That’s good, Hank, I’ll get us settled. While I’m doing that, could you please get some bottled water for us? I’ll stay here with baby Emma and little Kenny.”

“Got it,” Hank said, shaking off his tiredness and mustering his energy. He was a big man who seemed to take up the space of two people as he stood up. He turned to me and said, “Thanks, mister. Like I said, it’s been a long day.”

No kidding.

I looked up at him from where I was sitting and said, “Seriously, like I said, it’s not a problem.”

He looked relieved. He turned to his wife, bent down and gave her a quick hug, kissed the baby and his son, and then took off into the crowded concourse.

I don’t know why, but watching him with his children made me start thinking of my own kids, all three of them adults now, and all three of whom I had basically fallen out of touch with. Had any of them been in a similar situation like Hank and Amber? Traveling with their young families, off on their own in strange surroundings? Maybe in need of a little friendly assistance?

Then I had a more immediate thought. I had bought snacks at the airport in Missoula and hadn’t touched them, engaged as I had been in talking with Josh. Maybe the little family would like them.

I leaned over to the young mother and said, “Excuse me.”

Amber was cradling the baby (Emma) in her arms. Little Kenny was sitting quietly next to her holding a stuffed dog and playing some kind of game with it, pretending to ask the dog questions and then listening with a serious expression on his face to the dog’s answers. Maybe I was overly tired or something, but I had to admit that it was kind of cute.

At my query, Amber looked up at me in surprise. She was about the same age as her husband and had big brown eyes accented with dark purple eye shadow, short black hair and a small red heart tattooed on her right forearm. She was wearing a long, colorful floral skirt and a dark green tee-shirt and black combat boots. I couldn’t tell how many piercings she had in her ears, but I will tell you this: there were a lot. She looked up and met my eye but didn’t say anything, just waited to hear what I had to say.

“I have some snacks,” I told her, “Healthy ones, with nuts and raisins and things.”

Just then the little boy said, “I’m hungry, Momma.”

“Little Kenny, hush,” Amber said to her son, who immediately quieted down. Then she looked at me.”That’s very kind, mister, but you really don’t have to do that.”

I don’t know why, but a vision of Josh flashed in my mind. I knew what he would do. “I understand,” I said, “But I don’t have to do it. I want to do it.”

“Please, Momma, please can I have the nice man’s snack.”

Amber gave little Kenny a quick look and he was silent again.

“I don’t mean to cause a problem,” I said, back pedaling a little, “But they’re unopened. I reached in my travel bag and took one out to show her. I held the package upside down and shook it a little, “See.”

Little Kenny blurted out a laugh, “He’s funny, Momma.”

Nice to have a child that was so easily entertained. I smiled at him and shook the bag again, causing him to laugh some more.

“Well, all right. Thanks, mister,” Amber said. She took the bag of ‘California Treats’ and inspected it and found it to be to her liking. I could see her visibly relax, “Ok, that’s great, mister. Really great. Thank you.”

She opened the bag and poured a small amount into little Kenny’s palm. He immediately started to pick out individual raisins and pop them into his little mouth, chewing contemplatively. He even offered one to his doggy. Like I said, pretty cute little kid.

Amber looked at me and smiled a tired smile, “You hit it big, mister. He loves raisins.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” I said and sat back, feeling good about doing something nice for this young couple. “I’ve got some more in here, if he finishes those off.”

I made it a point of reaching down into my bag, while Amber smiled at my poor attempt at a little joke. Then she went back to cuddling her new baby who couldn’t have been more than a few months old and was dozing peacefully.

I found the snack bag I was looking for but I also found something else. My fingers came upon a smooth but bumpy object shaped like a donut and I jumped a little in surprise. What the…? I’m sure a puzzled expression appeared on my face because Amber looked at me with concern and asked, “Is something the matter, mister? Are you all right?”

I carefully took the object out of my bag and held it in my hand. It was Josh’s bracelet. The one he’d been wearing on the plane. The one I’d noticed before we’d begun our conversation which had lead to us becoming friendly with each other. The one I had negatively and erroneously classified as feminine. How’d it get there? Then I remembered him handing me my bag from the overhead bin when I’d been in such a befuddled state that I’d started to walk down the aisle without it. I rubbed my fingers over the smooth surface of the beads. I was touched and actually somewhat blown away because it was so unexpected – a thoughtful remembrance of our encounter and our brief time together. And, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe it was something more.

I held the bracelet in my hand and showed it to Amber. “It’s from a friend of mine,” I said.

Amber took it from me and admired it before returning it to me. “I can tell it’s handmade. It’s really quite lovely,” she said, “He must be a very good friend.”

I didn’t have to think. Although I doubted I’d ever seen him again, I answered, “He was…er…is,” I said, slipping it easily on my wrist with its elastic band. “He’s a really good guy.”

Little Kenny was admiring my bracelet when a few minutes later Hank came back with a bag of four bottles of water and some more snacks. He took a glance at the bracelet as he sat down and nodded, “Cool.” He gave me a bottle which I accepted, but I declined sharing their food, thinking that the young family needed it lots more than me.

We began chatting amicably back and forth. It turned out they were heading to Seattle, going to Amber’s aunt’s funeral. They’d been traveling all day from Vermont where they lived and Hank had his own small business as a carpenter and cabinet maker. He spent more than a few minutes telling me all about the different kinds of woods he used for the different projects he was working on and the various ‘Tools of the trade’ as he called them to work on those projects. I have to admit it all sounded really interesting and creative and, like with Josh, I was more than a little envious that Hank was doing work that he liked (if not loved) and believed in.

I declined to talk much about my life and my job, those being the last things I wanted to waste anybody’s time hearing about. Instead I helped the young parents out by playing with their son while they took care of baby Emma. Little Kenny introduced me to, and let me play with, his stuffed doggy whose name was Skipper. We fed Skipper raisins and pretended to talk to him for a while and then we went for a walk (with his parent’s approval, of course) in the airport. Then we rode back and forth on the conveyor track about a hundred times, killing time before their flight was called. I enjoyed it all.

When their flight was announced we went to their gate and I stood with them in the boarding area, keeping them company and helping out as much as I could. Little Kenny even held my hand while we walked there. I stayed with them until they got checked in and Hank and Amber and little Kenny all waved as they entered the boarding tunnel. I waved back and made a weird face at little Kenny that caused him to laugh. He waved harder and I smiled back and waved some more, watching until they were finally gone from view.

They were a really decent little family and it was nice to have gotten to know them. At one point I even thought about given either Amber or Hank the bracelet Josh had given me, just to be nice, but decided against it, thinking maybe it would seem strange to them – a little too much overt friendliness, maybe. But putting that aside, all and all, I have to say that the time I spent with them was pretty fun.

A little while after they boarded my flight was called, and I walked down to the gate to get ready for the final stage of my day’s long journey. I rubbed my fingers over Josh’s bracelet, thinking about something I’d been thinking about since I’d met Hank and Amber and wondering what Josh would suggest. Well, I knew what he’d tell me to do so I decided I would do it. I decided that the first thing I was going to do that next day when I got to my brother’s was to make three phone calls. I hadn’t talked to any of my kids in years and wouldn’t blame any of them if they didn’t want to have anything to do with me, but I figured if only one or two consented to talk to me I’d think of it as a win. I wouldn’t fault them, though, for holding my lack interest in their lives against me after so many years of neglect, but I wanted to try to rebuild some bridges. Hopefully it wasn’t too late for me to change. Hopefully it wasn’t too late for them to let me.

I boarded the plane and found my seat, by the window time. I was a little chilled so, along with my book, I took my jacket out of my travel bag before stowing it in the overhead bin. Then I got myself buckled in. When I was all set, I looked outside, watching the loading process for a while, wondering where all those bags were heading for before finally realizing they were all heading to exactly the same place I was, Las Vegas. I guess I was a little distracted.

Then I looked to my right and waited expectantly for the person to come and sit down who would be my traveling companion. Maybe it would be someone interesting to talk to. Someone like Josh. I waited and waited and then heard the flight attendant announce that the door was closing and we were to prepare for departure. The two seats next to me remained empty – no one was coming to sit down. I was going to have the row all to myself and I have to say, I was a little disappointed.

The flight attendant came over the intercom and told us about fastening our seats belts and all that but I wasn’t paying attention. I was suddenly really chilled so I put my jacket on and pulled it close, thinking I might ask for a blanket later. I lay my head against the window starring outside yet seeing nothing.

Feeling suddenly lonely, I touched the bracelet Josh gave me and wondered what he was doing right now at this very moment. Had he made his flight Ok? Was he looking forward to seeing Lynn? How would it go for him teaching his math class at the college when he got back to Montana after spring break? It was weird. I don’t normally think about other people much, and certainly never with people I’d just met. What was happening to me? Maybe I was just overly tired.

The plane taxied out to the runway and soon took off, climbing into the dark night and leaving the bright city lights of Denver far behind. At cruising altitude, we leveled off and I looked out the window. Down below I could see the dark outline of what I guessed were the Rocky Mountains. I even saw those tiny lights that Josh and I had seen and talked about. It was a wonderfully clear night. I could even see stars. Stars above and lights below. I wondered what Josh would have to say about that.

I checked my watch. It was just after one in the morning and the plane was dark, everyone sleeping or trying to. I’m sure I was the only one awake.  My brother would met me in Vegas in a couple of hours and then we’d drive 2 1/2 hours south across the desert to his home in Lake Havasu City. It’d be dawn when we arrived.

I turned on the overhead light and opened my book but only glanced at the pages, not able to read at all, suddenly feeling quite lost. I turned the light off and looked out the window some more, watching the nighttime world go by. Every now and then I’d see a light or lights down thousands of feet below, maybe a random ranch or farm, sometimes a small city – places where people lived and were tucked in safe and warm for the night. But not me. I pulled my jacket closer, not able to shake the chill that had come over me. I picked out some bright stars and watched them, marveling at how they filled the void of the universe. I wondered…could they perhaps be symbols of something like hopefulness, or a belief in a brighter future yet to come – a journey into the unknown where the mysteries of life are waiting to be revealed? I laughed a little add my sad attempt at poetic imagery, and then wondered what Josh’s Indian poet would think about such musings? Probably not much.

I closed my eyes, eager to forget my loneliness and feeling of being adrift, but I couldn’t. Images flooded into my brain of the people I’d recently met – my new friend Josh (for that’s how I now thought of him – my friend) and his long, white hair and beard. Hank with his shaved head and colorful tattoos and Amber with her black hair and combat boots – their kids, baby Emma and little Kenny. I was glad I’d gotten to know all of them and I silently  wished them the best in their journeys on this long, dark night. They were all such nice, decent people, and it was difficult to admit, but here was the hard, cold truth: they were all nicer people than I was, a lot nicer. It would probably be a long time before I’d ever forget them, if ever. I wondered if they even bothered to think of me. My guess was probably not.

As the night dragged on and as my thoughts kept swirling I realized that there were a lot of good people out there. People I hadn’t really ever bothered to notice before, or if I did, had formed quick and erroneous judgments of. People who were a lot better at this business of living a good life and being a decent person than I was.

Because of my job, I’d flown many times in my life – hundreds for sure, maybe even a thousand. All of those plane rides were different, of course, but on all of them there was one thing that was a common factor: on all of them I’d been able to eventually fall into a deep and restful sleep. But not tonight. Sleep never came for me on that late night flight to Las Vegas. I guess I had a lot on my mind.

The next day when I got to my brother’s place, we had a long talk and…well, to make a long story short, I’m still staying with him, my more than generous brother, Charlie. It’s been five weeks now and he tells me he doesn’t mind. He’s been a bachelor his whole life and tells me enjoys the company. I make it a point of trying to believe him. He works as a mechanic for a garage in town that specializes in building high performance engines for people who race jet-skis on Lake Havasu and around the country. His talents are in high demand, and he works long hours, so I try to make myself useful by helping out around the house and in the yard. He seems to appreciate my effort.

I called my work shortly after I arrived at Charlie’s and told them I was taking a leave of absence from my job. I wouldn’t be surprised if they fired me, and to be honest, I don’t think I’ll really mind if they do. My apartment in Long Lake was a tiny, one room studio above the hardware store, and I also called my landlord and told him to rent it if he could and he said he would. So I guess I’m not coming back to Minnesota any time soon. I’m probably done with my job, too, now that I think about it, even though I’ve heard nothing from them since I called.

I made good on my promise to myself and called my kids that first day I was at Charlie’s. Only my oldest daughter, Zoe, consented to answer my call but that was Ok. It was good to talk to her and we’ve slowly been renewing our relationship ever since. I’m still committed to keep trying with, Sara and Jack, my other daughter and son. It’s what Josh would have counseled me to do and it’s what I sincerely want as well. After all, I’m their father and I have neglected them for far too long. It is up to me to do the right thing and try to show my kids that I care about them and wasn’t as bad a person as they thought I was, even though I probably was. But one thing is certain, time isn’t slowing down and it certainly isn’t going to wait for me. I know it’s something I’ll be working on for the rest of my life – gaining my kids trust and building our relationship. The important thing is that I have to start somewhere. The next step to start talking to Sara and Jack and work toward eventually getting together and seeing all my kids person. The term baby steps comes into my mind a lot these days.

Every evening that we can, Charlie and I go out into the desert and go for a long walk. Sometimes we talk and recap what we’ve done that day, sometimes we don’t say much of anything and just enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes we stay out and watch the sunset, sometimes we even watch the stars come out. I like the peacefulness of the desert – the wind blowing across the wild land, the sense of complete emptiness. My brother says I’m getting pretty healthy and tan and I don’t know, maybe I am. I do know that I like being out in the wide open spaces and walking, letting my thoughts wander and go free.

Is it weird to say that I want to change and become a better person? I hope not because I’d at least like to try – try and take the measure of all that was special about Josh and Hank and Amber, even little Kenny, and learn from them. Try to emulate what was so good (if that’s the right word) about each of them. It seems like the right thing to do and, like I said, I’ve got to start somewhere. It’ll be an interesting journey, that’s for sure. One I am looking forward to taking. It’s been a long time coming.

 

 

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