Archive for September, 2009

Part 3 9-13-09

September 13, 2009

John had taken the news pretty well, all things considered. Charlie had managed to get a copy of the patient file sent up to DC for review by his friend’s wife. She drew the same conclusions as the local MD.


“Charlie, for all practical purposes, your uncle’s better off getting treated in Lexington. Chemo’s going to be the same whether here or there and at least he’s close to home. If it were my dad, I’d say just stay put.”





“You’re what?” Ruiz sounded incredulous. “Can’t you hire someone or something?”


“No.” Charlie was irritated; he reminded himself that he was probably just overly sensitive right now. “I’ll be down here no more than three weeks. They need me to manage the farm while my uncle’s getting treated. Look, will you please just check my mail and forward it on?”


“Yeah, ok. What did the office say when you told them?”


“What could they say? It’s Emergency Family Medical Leave—I’ve got the time,” it annoyed Charlie that he felt defensive. “I can’t just abandon my mother down here to face this alone. You’ve got your whole family in town,” he continued, “It’s just me—there is no one else. Besides, I can do some telecommuting,” he added. “I saw an internet café in town.”


“Well, at least there’s that,” Mike answered. “I know you’ve gotta help them; but don’t they realize they’ll get better care up here and that being away could jeopardize your promotion?”


Charlie sighed; Mike’s concerns were the same running through his own head.


“Good luck, Hammer. Come home when you can.”


Charlie knew his absence would create headaches at the office and a domino of delays for his cases, but it couldn’t be helped. He needed to be here; it wasn’t forever.






“Mama?” Charlie tapped his pen impatiently on the kitchen table. Three days of the typical home routine was enough—he needed to move. “Mama?”


From somewhere down the hall Jeannie answered, “What dear?”


“I’m going out. I’ve gotta buy a new bed for the cabin; my back can’t take it anymore.”


Jeannie popped her head out of the laundry area. “Why don’t you just sleep in the guest room? We’ve got a nice foam mattress in there.”


“I hate twin beds. I’ll take John’s truck.”


“Whatever you think, dear.”


John’s Chevy was over twenty years old; he needed something more reliable, but had refused to upgrade explaining that they couldn’t afford it. Charlie climbed inside and sat there, breathing in the deeply familiar scents of dirt, fertilizer, and sweat. He reached down into the cup holder and fished out the keys, his eyes spotting a faded photograph lying beneath some fliers stashed under the dash. Pulling out the bent photo, Charlie saw a studio portrait of him and Jeannie taken some 25 years earlier. He smiled, recalling how awkward he felt in that day in Sears, defiantly wearing his skinny shiny silver tie that he refused to remove despite his mother’s pleading. Jeannie wore a printed corduroy dress with a bow tie under the chin. Mother and son’s eyes sparkled an identical blue. Charlie wondered how often John had stared at this photo over the years.


Charlie recalled the day he realized that John was in love with his mother. It was over Christmas break, his first year of law school, when he finally looked around enough to pay attention to somebody other than himself. John had insisted that they drive all the way to Roanoke to purchase the fabric Jeannie had been coveting; she wanted to make a tablecloth that would match the pillows she’d cross stitched in the parlor. Charlie considered the entire exercise a waste of time—he knew perfectly well that John didn’t care what tablecloth was used for Christmas dinner, but John was determined to get this. As he watched John present the fabric to his mother, he recognized the look of immense pleasure cross his uncle’s face at Jeannie’s expression of joy. It was then he saw it. Few things could generate that look on a man’s face other than the joy he felt at pleasing a woman. From that day on, Charlie swore to himself that he’d never let the right girl slip away from him as a result of inaction or neglect, never mind he nearly already had.


Shaking his head, Charlie turned the keys in the ignition and eased the truck down the potholed road. While the farm looked exactly like it had when he was a boy and as it had over the previous four generations of Witchell farmers, Charlie was aware that the surrounding area was changing. Since his initial arrival after John’s collapse, he hadn’t had a chance to look around town; it would be good to have this time alone. He pulled out on to SR 42, admiring the recently widened road, the black, tar top coat still shiny and surprisingly redolent. Along the fifteen mile stretch to Rossberg, Charlie couldn’t help but marvel at the signs of change:  where once there was an abandoned barn, now there appeared a modest home, with a neatly mown lawn in front.


“Who in God’s name would spend the dough to live here?” he mused. Pardy had mentioned that Red Forrester and Jeff Mosby were cleaning up down at the landing—about two years ago, the Wahonsett had been highlighted in the Post’s weekend getaway magazine and ever since things had been picking up. Charlie recalled his mother mentioning that Rob Cutler had moved back from San Francisco with his partner to open a B&B. “He’s a homosexual now,” she whispered. Charlie half smiled as he recalled those high school days when Rob was the only one of their group not to have a girl. He was glad that Cutler could come home again and be who he was. Progress was a good thing; he’d need to give old Rob a call.


 The truck turned left into town and familiar sites greeted him: Dixie’s Supermarket looked as it always had. The empty lot next door was still used for softball games. The First American Bank mascot had been updated, as had the exterior of the post office. Things were sprucing up more than he recalled when his gaze fell upon Foye’s Taxidermy and Gun Shop—some things didn’t change. Foye’s had been there for as long as he could remember.


Charlie looked at his watch: 8:15. The Mattress Palace wouldn’t open for another 45 minutes. He drove along Main Street, surveying the variety of storefronts, most still closed. His thoughts drifted to the DOJ—images of the desk jockeys settling into their areas, checking emails and the ubiquitous office memos, attorneys frantically printing up last minute briefs for court, doing the people’s business. He stopped at the single traffic light and impatiently tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. The light turned green and he moved forward. On the right, in front of what had formerly been Waggy’s Garage and Tire Shoppe, he saw something new: the sign read JumpStart Café—WiFi accessible. “Yes!” he exclaimed. He pulled into a diagonal space in front and shut off the engine.


Strains of the Indigo Girls greeted him before he opened the heavy, glassed-in door. The small café had about 10 tables and the requisite, battered loveseats in the corner. He inhaled deeply—the odor of freshly ground beans wakened his senses. “Ah,” he sighed, “real coffee.” A German Shepherd lifted its head and looked at him.


“May I help you?” Charlie smiled as a woman came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands. She looked to be in her early 40s, wearing embroidered jeans and a v-necked black t-shirt, with an apron tied around her waist.


 “I can’t believe an Internet café has opened in Rossberg.”


“18 months now,” she answered. “Rover and I kind of like the place.” The dog stood up and began wagging its tail.


Charlie put his hand out for the dog to sniff. “I’m Charlie Witchell.”


“Hi Charlie. I’m Andy Buehler—the owner of this fine institution. What can I get you?”


Charlie savored the rich scent of coffee beans, noticing the pennants and old crew boat mounted on the wall. Photos of whitewater kayakers hung in spots along the walls. DC was filled with coffee houses, only most of them offered trendy tables and uncomfortable chairs, the latest techno house music pulsating through the walls. He preferred the solid wood tables scattered throughout the cafe. “Large coffee.”


She offered him a mug and pointed to the dispenser area.


He handed her a bill. “How many folks use your Internet?” he queried.


“A lot of the college kids use it when they want to escape from campus,” she explained, pushing her hair behind her ears.


Charlie admired the woman’s tanned arms and athletic build. “You a kayaker?”


“Uh huh,” she replied, rubbing her arms. “The runs ‘round here are great. You?”


“It’s been a long time,” he answered, sipping his coffee. “You know, I’m glad you’re here, but I’m surprised a place like this can make it. I grew up in Rossberg and wouldn’t expect too many of the natives would be willing to pay for coffee like this.”


“It’s mostly the kids,” she nodded. “They hang out here a lot. Plus, outdoor recreation has grown fast in the past few years, so we get a lot of tourists passing through.” She wiped down the counter. “So, what about you? Are you just passing through?”


Charlie sighed and drained his mug. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “I live in DC but had to come home for awhile.”


Andy looked thoughtful. “DC, huh? I used to live there, too.” The café door opened and a group of cyclists walked in, their expensive ten speeds resting against the porch railing. She returned to her place behind the cash register. “Well, Charlie,” she said. “Nice to meet you. Come on by if you decide to stick around.”







The doorbells chimed as Charlie pushed open one of  the double glass doors to the Mattress Palace. A bored looking man wearing a red polo shirt with a bed embroidered on the breast pocket looked up from his paper. “Can I help you?” he asked.


The air conditioned cool of the store surprised Charlie; condensation collected at the corners of the street facing windows. His eyes scanned the stacks of plastic wrapped mattresses leaning against every available wall. “Yes,” he replied, walking towards the desk. Charlie winced as his back protested last night’s accommodations. “I need to buy a bed—one with a really firm mattress.”


“All our inventory is on the floor,” the salesman gestured in a large circle. “You came at a good time,” he said, folding his paper. “We’re having a two for one sale until the end of the week. Why don’t you look around and try out a few —only, no shoes on the mattress.”


Charlie wended his way around the various displays as fragments of Celine Dion ballads drifted across the showroom, the salesman silently following him. He stopped at a display of a simple headboard and box spring mattress. “This here is our most basic model,” the salesman explained. Charlie awkwardly lay down, careful to suspend his feet over the bed while the salesman stood over him. “Firm enough,” Charlie observed.


“Why don’t you try this one right here,” the salesman gestured to the next display over. “This here is our Beauty Queen Sleepy Time mattress,” he explained. “You’ll feel like you’re sleeping on a cloud.” He paused, caressing the bright brass headboard. “The ladies always go for this one,” he winked.


Charlie forced a smile and stood up. “No, I think this first one will be fine, thanks.”


“But we have many more models,” the salesman protested. “Let me show you the one made with NASA approved material.” He pointed towards the front window where a massive bed encased in sheets covered with firing rockets was showcased.


Charlie shook his head. “This will be fine, thank you.”


Disappointed, the salesman shrugged. “You’re out at the Witchell place, huh?” he asked, looking out at John’s beat up old truck. “You Jeannie’s boy? I heard John had a heart attack. How’s he doin’?”


“He’s been better,” Charlie shrugged.


The two men stared at one another. Disappointed by the lack of information, the salesman grimaced. “Well then, thanks for shopping the Mattress Palace. Rest easy,” he added.








“This way,” Charlie pointed as he and Pardy maneuvered the old mattress onto the truck bed.


“You takin’ that thing to the dump?” Pardy asked. Charlie nodded. “I’ll ride with you—I’ve got some old tractor tires that John hadn’t gotten ‘round to gettin’ rid of.”




The men sat in silence as the old truck jostled along the entrance road, which wound its way along the back part of the farm. Charlie craned his neck to look down onto the Wahonsett, flowing below. “What’s going on?” he asked pointing across to the other side of the river where a survey team was at work.


Pardy shrugged. “I seen ‘em out there once or twice before,” he answered. “Reckon’ it’s somethin’ to do with the College—they own the property.”


“Is the College expanding?” Frowning, Charlie tried to estimate how much property damage might occur if dorms were constructed so close to the farm. John had mentioned a couple of instances of having to shoo wannabe partiers off the back forty—the last time, the teens had responded aggressively. He’d need to check the zoning regs for this part of the county. There were increasing numbers of cases where school boards were filing actions against long standing farms, complaining about farmyard smells or pesticide drift that were part of what was necessary to run a farm. Urban encroachment was forcing a lot of small farmers out of existence.


Pardy shrugged. “Maybe. I dunno.” He shook his head. “In some ways, it might be just as well if John sold the farm. I mean, don’t get me wrong, farmin’ is what I do and I’m grateful for the work, but it’s hard to make a dollar these days. I keep expectin’ John to let me go—the margin’s been gettin’ tighter each year.”


“Really?” John had never mentioned this to Charlie; he hadn’t stopped to think about it much, preferring to assume things were fine.


“Yeah, it’s gettin’ bad,” Pardy continued, as the truck eased over a large pothole. “It seems like every time we turn around, there’s more regulations and environmental hoohah. I don’t know how John puts up with it for as long as he has—I know he tried to fight some of it with the Farm Service Agency last year but lost. Reckon you helped him out.”


Charlie frowned. Neither John nor his mother had mentioned any of this to him. He could have made some calls and found out what was going on—usually regs of this sort could be structured so as to grandfather in preexisting farms under a certain size. Charlie vaguely recalled John mentioning needing to go to the courthouse for something, but he had never bothered to ask for details. Whenever he called—which wasn’t often—he had been too busy telling them about his life. A hot flash of shame swept across him.


“Yeah,” Pardy sighed. “John seemed pretty disappointed by the result. He cancelled his order for a new truck and mentioned that he might need to cut back on my hours, but that was the last I heard of it. And now with his health problems and all.” He looked out the window. “It’s a good thing you’re here, though I know they’re real sensitive about not disturbin’ you, so please don’t tell ‘em I said nothin’.”


“Deal.” Charlie pulled the truck up to the dump entrance gate and paid the fee. Two scrawny teenagers appeared from inside a nearby trailer and hauled the refuse out of the truck bed. He could hear the tv blaring from inside– one of those outrageous teenage soaps which commanded such an enormous following of viewers who grew increasingly discontented with their own lives, believing what they saw was reasonable.


Silently, the men headed home.


Is Who You are What you Do? Part 2

September 7, 2009



Section 2


Charlie awoke to the rich fragrance of frying bacon; it was a smell that comforted him in a deep, fundamental way he could never articulate. Wincing as he stood up, a night on the sofa had done no favors for his sore back. He looked at his watch: 6:15am.


“Hey, mama,” he said, easing himself onto one of the hard, wooden chairs that had sat around the table—its mint green paint peeling off the legs– for as long as he could remember.


“Hey, baby,” she kissed him on the forehead, her hand lingering on the back of his neck. “Thank you for coming.” She handed him a mug of hot water and pushed the jar of Sanka crystals towards him.


“Of course I’d come. I’ll stay for as long as you need me.” Charlie checked his Blackberry, waiting for a signal to register; he’d need to notify the office that he’d be out for a few days.


“D’you mean it?” Jeannie asked as she served him a plate of steaming scrambled eggs and bacon. The toast was burned—Charlie made a mental note he’d need to work on the toaster again before he left.


Nodding, he stirred the crystals into the hot water, watching as the trail of light brown turned into the dark, flavored drink. Too bad they refused to use the coffee maker he’d given them a few years back. “None of my cases are scheduled for court in the next week or so, so it’s workable. Besides, I know it’ll take some time for John to get back on his feet and I’m happy to help out.” He savored a forkful of the freshly scrambled eggs, grateful to enjoy his mother’s hearty cooking. “Pardy’s still here every day isn’t he? I mean, John isn’t trying to manage the farm by himself, right?”


Jeannie smiled appreciatively at her son. He had grown into such a fine man and she was proud of him. His daddy would’ve been, too. She grimaced as she recalled that cold December afternoon thirty-five years ago when she heard the knock on the door of the apartment and saw the Navy Chaplain. Eddy had been swept overboard during a routine exercise the previous night. The rains had been bad and his harness didn’t hold—they never recovered the body. With a toddler in tow, and barely twenty years old, Jeannie had nowhere to go. Once word reached Rossberg that Eddy Witchell had drowned, his brother drove straight to Norfolk to collect them. They’d lived on his farm ever since.


Jeannie knew that Charlie couldn’t remember anything about his daddy, and the intervening years had made it harder for her, too. John had been so generous to open his home to them; he’d never married and never asked for a thing from her in return. Sometimes, she wished he had. It was hard to make a farm work these days, commercial operations were so much bigger and efficient that the little guy had a hard time of it. John was always grumbling about the new regulations government agencies were burdening him with—between the paperwork and the additional safety requirements, whatever small profit he could make was dwindling. He’d actually planned on letting Pardy go altogether—he’d told Jeannie that he was going to do his best without him for awhile; they could use the extra money. She smiled and decided to ignore her son’s question.



“How’re the eggs?” Jeannie asked.


Charlie swallowed and took a sip of the watery Sanka. “Good,” he answered. “But it looks as though the toaster’s acting up again.” He took the knife edge and tried to scrape away the charred bits.


Jeannie sighed. “I know. It was workin’ fine right after you fixed it the last time, but then it started burnin’ again.”


“I’ll take a look,” he replied. “Is there anything else that’s busted?” Charlie had a talent for repairs. He liked taking things apart and figuring out how to make them work again. He’d seen so many instances—especially in DC—of people discarding perfectly good items at the first sign of a problem. It never made sense to him—why throw something away just because it isn’t exactly right? There was usually a way to make it work.


“The parlor clock’s stopped,” she answered.


Charlie finished the last of his toast. “Ok, I’ll take a look. But first I’ve got to step out and call the office. Excuse me.” He stood up and put the dirty dishes in the sink, running water over them so the food bits didn’t stick to the china.


“Oh honey, you go on,” Jeanne bustled up beside him. “I can do this.” She slipped on her yellow plastic gloves and reached over for the liquid soap.


“Thanks, Mama.” He walked out onto the porch and descended the stairs to the entrance road where he could get a clear signal. It was early, but he expected the Chief would already be in. “Martha? Hey, it’s Charlie. I’m down in Rossberg on a family emergency. My uncle had a heart attack yesterday. I don’t know; we should hear more later today. Thanks. Ernestine can check my calendar, but nothing’s due right now. What? Check with Rakowski—we were trying to sort that out earlier. Ok. At any rate, you’ve got my mobile. I’ll call again with an update. Thanks.”


Shading his eyes from the strong, morning sun, he could hear Jeannie singing to herself in the kitchen and decided to inspect the farm. The tractor needed moving in. Walking along the plowed rows took Charlie back to his boyhood. John had insisted his nephew earn his keep by learning how to till and plant a field properly. His uncle had little patience for the boy’s complaints that he wanted to hang out at the Bootheville Mall with his friends.


“Growing things requires a lot of endurance and determination,” he explained. “You don’t just throw the seeds out there and hope some stick.” They’d walk along the orderly rows, John instructing his charge on the requirements of proper soil cultivation, warnings regarding watering, and the perils of too much fertilizer. “You can’t just dump a summer’s worth of rain on a seed and expect it to thrive. These things take time and careful handling.” Charlie recalled his wanting to hurry through the chores so he could hang out with his pals. “How good a cake do you think your mama would bake if she just threw the batter into the oven and turned it up to 600 degrees? You’d think the cake would be ready in five minutes?”


Over the years, Charlie grew to appreciate his uncle’s approach. As he mastered the discipline necessary to see things through, he grew patient. While classmates used to a much faster paced life erred as a result of their expectation of instantaneous results, Charlie proceeded at his own pace. An unexpected divided from this patience was Charlie’s discovery of his talent for fixing things. In high school, Charlie always volunteered for the advanced projects in Shop Class because none of the other students had the patience to take the time necessary to break things down and understand how they worked. This never bothered young Witchell. He was content to sit on his stool, working away.


It was this reputation for a measured, orderly approach that made him so successful in the courtroom. He didn’t get ruffled when opposing counsel started to get dramatic.


“Mornin, Charlie,” a man called. He was shaken from his reverie. It was Pardy, approaching the tractor from the other direction.


“Pardy.” They shook hands.


The farmhand pointed to the place where the rows were disturbed. “I found him over there,” he said.


Charlie stared at the place where John had fallen; it felt strange to think of him as being incapacitated that way. He had always been so reliable, so strong. “Heart attack. He’s ok, I guess. The doctor said it was bad but they got to him in time. They’re doing some more tests today.”


“You seen him?


“Not yet. It was late when I arrived.” He paused. “We’re really thankful you found him.”


“Me too. He was clutching his chest and gasping. I had forgotten to tell him somethin’ ‘bout the tractor’s clutch and had come over and there he was.” He shook his head. “You stayin’ home for awhile?”


“Looks like it.”


“Ok, well, I reckon I should get started; we’ve still got the back forty to do.” The red haired man settled his cap onto his head and climbed aboard. Charlie stepped back, careful to avoid the spot where his uncle fell. Pardy waved as he rode off.



Mercy Hospital looked smaller and more humble than when he pulled up the night before. Charlie eased the Jetta into one of the spots available in front of the entrance. He and Jeannie walked across the flagstone entrance, pausing to pick up a copy of USA Today from the dispenser. The automatic doors hissed open as they entered.


Classified as a rural, regional medical center, Mercy Hospital was the recipient of all cases within a 80 mile radius of Lexington. The occasional clinic could be found scattered in more distant parts, but everyone sent their more serious cases to Mercy. If something additional was needed, they’d need to summon a helicopter from Richmond.


The waiting area was crowded with crying children, a few recovering meth addicts waiting for their methadone treatment, and what appeared to be two outdoor adventure couples who looked as though they had spent a long night in a leaky tent. Charlie approached the nurses’ station. “Morning. My uncle was admitted yesterday and I’d like to see him, if possible.”




“John Witchell.”


The nurse reviewed the admittance sheet and checked her computer. “You’ll need a Visitor’s Pass,” she said. “Please go over to the kiosk to sign in.”


Charlie and his mother presented their identification to the volunteer. The woman smiled at them as she handed back the passes. “Room 207,” she said. “Down the hall and make your first left.”


Room 207 was a double occupancy room, with a view of the front entrance. John was dozing when they approached his bed.


“John?” Jeannie called out softly, patting his hand.


The patient opened his eyes and smiled. “Charlie,” he said quietly, his voice weak. “Oh Lord, Jeannie, am I dead? Boy, what are you doin’ down here?”


“I heard you took a tumble,” his nephew replied smiling.


“That’s what they tell me.” John sighed and looked at the tube coming out of his hand. “They got me rigged up to so many machines; I feel like an outlet.”


“Dr. Denson says you’ll be fine,” Jeannie remarked. She perched on the chair beside the bed. “We spoke to him last night and they’re going to run some tests, but he says you’ll be fine.” She squeezed his hand.


“I don’t know how fine I can be if Charlie got himself down here so quick. I know that boy don’t like leavin’ the city,” he teased.


“Oh now, you hush,” Jeannie chuckled.


“Tell him ‘bout the toaster?” John asked.


“I saw it for myself at breakfast,” Charlie answered. “I’ll get to it once we know when you’re coming home.”


Two orderlies stood at the door. “Excuse us, we need to take the patient down the hall.” They wheeled him out, leaving Charlie and his mother alone in the room.


“We’ll be here when you get back,” Jeannie called. John raised his hand in acknowledgement.


Charlie couldn’t get comfortable in the waiting area. “Considering how long people have to wait, you’d think they’d have better chairs out here,” he muttered, annoyed the signal kept dropping from his Blackberry. He wondered what was in the day’s The Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. As he scanned the waiting area, he had to remind himself not to stare at the meth addicts, nervously waiting for their treatment. He watched his mother, sitting quietly across from him working on her knitting. She had recently taken a craft class at The Quilting Bee called “Razzle Dazzle Knitted Washcloths” and was working on her project assignment.


“I’m going to stretch my legs,” he announced, pointing at the sliding glass doors. She nodded, careful not to lose count of her stitches.


The warm, late morning sun felt good as it radiated across Charlie’s neck and shoulders. He winced as he twisted his torso, trying to limber up after the night on that sofa. He could envision his muscles stretching, working against the stiffness of last night’s softball game. It all felt so long ago. John looked ok but not great, he thought. He debated calling a buddy whose wife was a supervising MD at GW; she could give him a read on this. He was about to press dial when he stopped himself; better to wait for the test results.


“Charlie?” Jeannie called out as she exited the sliding glass doors. “The doctor is ready.”


Charlie turned and walked back into the building. The nurse directed them to the doctor’s office.


“Good morning,” Dr. Denson was seated at his desk when they came in. “Have a seat.”

Charlie pulled out a chair for his mother. “Have you seen the patient?” They nodded.


Fred Denson stood up and walked behind them to close the office door. He returned to his chair and looked at the file again. “I have some good news and some not so good news,” he began. “Which do you want first?”


“Good news.”


“Yes, the good news, please,” Jeannie chimed.


“The good news is that despite suffering a significant coronary event, it looks as though no permanent damage was done to the patient’s cardio pulmonary system. It’ll take awhile for him to recover, but he should be ok on that front. He’ll just need to take it easy from here on out; a man in his sixties shouldn’t be scrambling up large pieces of heavy machinery.”


“And the bad?” Jeanne grabbed her knitting bad a little tighter.


Dr. Denson had much experience delivering bad news to local families, but it never made it any easier. Over the years, he had learned to maintain the emotional distance necessary, but it pained him to deliver news that would so abruptly change someone’s. He believed in plain talk and didn’t hide behind the confusing and frustratingly tentative language used by so many of his peers. His wife said that it was this quality which made him compassionate. “Well as you know,” he began, “I mentioned that we saw a cloudy area on his chest. After further tests, it seems there’s a good chance this is cancer.”


The room was silent.


“I don’t know how aggressive this variety is,” he continued. “We’ll need to take a biopsy, but it is serious, you need to know that. We’ve hopefully caught it early enough that we can manage it, but I don’t want to mislead you.”


Charlie looked out the window, his eyes focusing on the middle distance as he tried to get his thoughts in order.


“Does John know?” Jeannie asked. “Have you told him yet?”


“I wanted to wait so we could go in together.”


Charlie’s mind raced through the possibilities; if he pulled a few strings, he could get John admitted into GW Hospital. His mother could stay with him in Bethesda and learn to take the metro. “Do we have to tell him right away?” he asked. “Would it impact his chances of recovery from the heart attack if we tell him right now?”


The physician shook his head. “I’m afraid this can’t wait. I owe it to the patient—he needs to know what he’s facing and plan accordingly.” Charlie stood and put his hand on his mother’s left shoulder. She reached up and squeezed it. “Many cases of lung cancer can be managed, sometimes even cured. I’ve seen plenty of patients survive treatment and continue to live years afterwards. He has good odds, but he’ll need your support. I’d be lying if I told you he could carry on with life in the way he was.”


Jeannie grimaced; first Eddy and now John. “Thank you, Doctor. We’ll get through this, I know we will.” She stood up and settled her bag on her shoulder.


“Do you have any questions?”


“Not right now,” she answered firmly. “He needs to know.”


The MD looked at Charlie who started to say something but stopped himself. They’d know soon enough. “Well then,” Dr. Denson said, “I guess we better go.”

Is Who You Are What You Do? Part 1

September 6, 2009

Author’s note: Like Charles Dickens, I will publish this serially, as I go about revising each bit. Since it’ll go in order, if you want to start at the beginning, you’ll need to start here and read more recent posts afterwards.  I wrote this novel the summer of 2006, and it is the first of three novels in this series about Charlie Witchell, a DOJ litigator in his late thirties. I’d love to hear your comments as I make my way through this work!




The crack of the wooden bat as it smacked the ball faded quickly into the cheers of the multiple games occurring along the Mall. Along with the cherry blossoms and a rocketing pollen count, springtime in Washington also hailed the first of several softball seasons where teams from across Capitol Hill and a medley of federal agencies would meet to battle out whatever they couldn’t resolve through memos.


“Go Hammer, go! Push it, man. You can make home! Run!”


Charlie Witchell gasped as he landed on third plate. Five years ago, he would have made it all the way home, but at 38, his legs were starting to slow down just enough that he noticed the difference.


Taunting Charlie and his teammates, a man laughed from the side, “They’re as slow in the field as they are filing briefs. Treasury’s dominion remains unchallenged.”


Charlie squinted in the early evening sun—it was his law school buddy and opposing team captain, Mike Ruiz. As his teammate hit the ball, Charlie flung himself at home plate only to be called out.


A roar went up from the Treasury side. “We are the champions,” they sang, hoisting the trophy into the air. Charlie hunched over, his hands on his knees, panting. He just didn’t have it like he used to.


“Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, Hey hey there, goodbye,” the victors sang, collecting their belongings and crossing the field for a sportsman’s handshake. Mike planted himself in Charlie’s path, the glint of his wedding band catching the sun. “Come on Hammer,” he said, “you owe me a victory brew. Let’s go.”


Panting, Charlie straightened up and looked at his friend. “You think winning makes you king of the hill?”


“I’m king of the hill,” Ruiz shouted laughing, “We are numero uno and Treasury will reign forever.” He hoisted the trophy above his head and whooped.


“Alright,” Charlie acquiesced. “If you think this sham of a victory will make up for your, uh, rumored shortcomings, go for it.” Mike chuckled, waving the trophy in Charlie’s face. They crossed behind other games that were winding down in the fading light of an early May evening.


“Keep telling yourself that, Hammer,” Ruiz retorted. “Deal with defeat however you must, but you still owe me a pitcher.” The two men trailed behind their teammates, waiting for the light at Independence Avenue to signal it was safe to cross.


The simple wood and glass doors of the popular watering hole, Foaming at the Mouth, belied all the intricacies and intensity of the conversations occurring within. Softball teams mixed with lower level congressional staffers who were chased after by young lobbyists, eager to make their mark. These denizens were the younger set—they yearned for the day when they could join the heavy hitter patrons of The Press Room, which was located over on Constitution. “Crossing the Mall,” they called it.


Large copper vats and an enormous polished bar set the tone of the cozy pub. As Charlie and Mike walked in, they were enveloped by the noise of the young and ambitious. Excited to be in Washington, pleased with themselves for having landed here, the early Washington careerists prided themselves on satisfying the stereotype. Someday they, too, would read their names in the Post or Congressional Daily Record. The celebrants spotted the opposing captains and waved them over. Mike proudly placed the trophy on the bar to the applause of his Treasury colleagues. “Buy me a beer, Hammer man,” he said with a smile. “I need that sweet nectar of victory.”


Charlie laughed and ordered three pitchers; this was a pattern he knew and had grown to love. At quiet moments, he still couldn’t get over his surprise that he had actually landed in the nation’s capital. Having taken the LSATs on a dare (as a major in agricultural sciences at Virginia Tech), Charlie never expected to do well on the test, let alone get accepted anywhere. But he’d scored high enough that he decided to try his luck and apply to school. George Washington had come through with a partial scholarship and he’d been in DC ever since.


A table opened up and Ruiz grabbed it. “Over here,” he motioned to Charlie. A DC native, Mike Ruiz had spent his entire life in Washington, save for his undergraduate years at UCLA. He lived and breathed this city—its sports, its politics, and the relentless, ambitious pace of the driven. Occasionally, Charlie noticed that Ruiz seemed to savor the fierce competition of the city more than anything else. He smiled, recalling the first day at GW when they met in their assigned study group; Ruiz showed him around the city and eventually helped Charlie land a job with a local landscaper so Charlie could pay for whatever expenses the scholarship failed to cover.


“So, Hammer, how’re things going?” Ruiz asked, checking his cell for any messages from his wife, Loreen.


Charlie smiled. The beer was taking effect and the loss of the championship became less important as the early spring sky changed from blue to black. “Good,” he said, “Really good. The Chief’s asked me to take the lead on what’s looking to be a politically charged case. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds. I’ve been lobbying for us to continue negotiations with the developer, but Rakowski, who’s co-counsel with me, is pushing to bury them in court.”


“The thrill of the kill,” Mike mused, draining his mug.


“Yeah, well, it doesn’t make much sense to hit so hard if you don’t need to,” Charlie countered. “You want to save that for when you really need it.”


“Couldn’t disagree more, amigo,” Mike retorted as he refilled their mugs. “I mean, why else are you a litigator than to duke it out in court? If you don’t spill some blood, where’s the fun in that?”


Charlie snorted. “Easy for you to say; all you worry about is tracking wire transfers and what next inane thing violates the Patriot Act.”


“Hey, I may not be on the front line, but my skills are far more nuanced and require a subtlety you only wish you had.”


“Keep tellin’ yourself that, Ruiz.” The men laughed.



The walk home from the Bethesda Metro to Charlie’s modest brick apartment building was always pleasant. Mike had offered him a ride home, but he declined, preferring the transition time that the journey allowed him as he swooshed through the underground tunnels and emerged in the center of consumer activity—downtown felt far away. He marveled at the brightly illuminated storefronts, and variety of ethnic restaurants for which Bethesda had become known. It was all so different from Rossberg; he never wanted to leave. Hanging his suit on the arm of the colonial style lamp post, he fished for his house keys and opened the glossy black front door. As Charlie stepped into the hot, airless hallway, he noticed a message blinking on his answering machine. He dropped his keys in the tray and hit play.


“Charlie?” An older woman’s voice called out. “Charlie? Oh dear, you’re not home.” It was his mother; she sounded frightened. “John’s had a heart attack and I’m at the hospital in Lexington. Please come as soon as you can.”


He made good time. Given the lateness of his arrival home, by the time he got on the 495, the Beltway was cleared of most traffic and he was able to exit onto 81 South in less than 90 minutes. It was not quite 11pm when he pulled up to Mercy Hospital.




“Charlie!” Jeannie Witchell stood up from the long row of orange, plastic chairs that ringed the waiting area. The tv hoisted in the corner near the ceiling was broadcasting a muted news report of world events thousands of miles away. He walked over and hugged her, her short, plump body reaching only as high as the middle of his chest.


“Mama, what happened? Is he ok? Are you alright? Where’s the doctor?”


It was a moment before Jeannie would let go of her son and look him in the face. Charlie recognized that familiar look of worry and fatigue which pained him as much now as it did years ago. “He had just finished unloading some sacks of meal and tried to climb back onto the tractor when he collapsed. I didn’t see it, but Pardy Tucker came running over to the house yelling for me to call an ambulance.” She burst into tears. Charlie steeled himself and fought back the faint sense of vulnerability he remembered so well from his youth.


Charlie hugged his mother and stroked her hair, his mind racing through what his next step should be. “Is he alright?” he asked again.


Jeannie nodded into his chest. “Dr. Denson, says we got him here in time, but it was severe and he’ll need time to recuperate.”


“Ok, so we need to talk to Dr. Denson,” Charlie stated. “It’s pretty late—is he still here?” He looked over at the nurses’ station, “Can we talk to Dr. Denson, please?” The nurse nodded and paged the MD. Charlie turned back to his mother. “Let’s wait here.”


About ten minutes later, Fred Denson met the Witchells in the waiting area. A wiry man in his mid sixties, he had moved home to Lexington right after graduation from UVA. He’d seen a lot of cases of aging farmers trying to do too much with too little help; the era of small farms was coming to an end. Too much work and too little recompense. Better left to the young ones to settle on how to create an economy out here, because farming wasn’t it.


Shifting into his litigator mode as the physician approached, Charlie introduced himself. “I’m John’s nephew. I here from DC and was hoping you could brief me.”


The MD surveyed the young man standing before him; he recognized the type. As farming made way for an economy based on tourism and outdoor adventure activities, Doc Denson had frequently been on call when some fancy Washington type got hurt doing something stupid in his kayak or got himself shot while trying to bring down a pheasant. It seemed to him that the idiocy quotient seemed to rise with every passing GS level. Inwardly, he shook his head; the local economy needed their dollars, but with them came more aggressive everything. He mourned the passing of a gentler era. This young fella would likely be no different.


“Yes, Mrs. Witchell here said you’d be coming.” The men shook hands. “Your dad—“


“My uncle,” Charlie corrected.


“Your uncle? Well, ok,” the MD paused, he hated being interrupted. “He suffered a massive coronary this afternoon and is lucky to be alive. He should recover just fine, but there are a few other tests I’d like to run in the morning.”


“What sort of tests?”


Dr. Denson surveyed the patient chart. “Oh mostly routine,” he shrugged. “The sonogram showed a cloudy area in his chest and I’d like to get that x-rayed before we send him home. He’s going to be here a day or two, anyway. All strictly routine—nothing to worry about.” Years of experience had taught Fred Denson to underplay any concerns.


“A cloudy area in his chest?” Jeannie slowly repeated. “He used to smoke a lot—well, everyone did—but gave that up nearly twenty years ago.”


“Now, Ms. Witchell,” Dr. Denson replied, using his most soothing voice, “no sense in getting yourself all upset ‘bout things we don’t know to be the case. Why don’t you and your son go back home, get some rest, and return tomorrow? The patient needs his sleep and I’m not available to supervise the tests until sometime late morning. Y’all go on. He’ll be watched closely, I promise.”


Jeannie shook her head, resistant to the idea of leaving John, but Charlie ushered her into the parking lot. “Come on, mama, let me take you home. We’ll be back in the morning. John’ll be ok; the doctor said so.” He opened the passenger side door of his dark green Jetta and waited for his mother to get in.


Jeannie turned back to the hospital and stared.


“Come on, mama. It’s late and you’ll feel better when you get some rest.” She nodded and sank into the seat. Charlie strapped on her safety belt before walking over to the driver’s side. She looked so small and tired. “The doctor seemed confident enough,” he said encouragingly. Pulling out of the parking lot, Charlie ran through his options: perhaps he could call in some chits and get John examined by a specialist in DC—no, better to wait until after the test results come back and he’d seen John for himself.


The forty-five minute drive back to Rossberg was quiet. Jeannie slumped against the car door, exhausted. Even though John wasn’t her husband, they had shared a house since the day she brought little Charlie back from Norfolk. As a recent Navy widow, she didn’t have anywhere else to go but her husband’s family farm. John had taken them in as if they were his own and it had been like that ever since.


Having escorted Jeannie to her room, Charlie stretched out on the living room sofa to sleep. His eyes drifted across the family photographs—John and Eddy as boys playing in the Wahonsett at the back of the farm property, Eddy’s framed PFC certificate displayed on the wall right next to a picture of his grandfather, John Sr., serving as a sergeant  in the 29th Infantry Division, a snapshot of Eddy and Jeannie at the Justice of the Peace when they married, John on his tractor years later, and several of Charlie growing up in Rossberg—playing on the same river banks, formal class photos, running cross country. His eyes lingered on the photo of the three of them at Charlie’s law school graduation. He recognized the anxiety his expression belied—his embarrassment by the homely clothes and back country manner his mom and John brought with them when they drove up for the ceremony. They were beaming at the camera but Charlie simply looked apologetic.


He never liked that photo.

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