French Valley – Chaparral, California
“Good morning. Jacob,” said Zeph, with visible breath in the pre-dawn air.
“Morning. Zeph,” replied Jacob, as Zeph pulled up to the curb of St. Jude’s in a horse-drawn wagon, “I didn’t realize we were going to be resorting to such primitive forms of transportation.”
“Well, it’s cheaper than gas, and we’ve only got a five- or six-mile trip to the French Valley Café, so I opted for real horsepower. Besides, the slower trip will give you a better lay of the land.”
Zeph was right, Traveling by wagon did give him a better chance to drink in the landscape. The two men rode quietly through the countryside as they veered north toward the heart of wine country. It was still some time before the sun would rise and the pre-dawn light of morning crept into the west and shadows stretched on and colors remained silent. To the east, the hills and the clouds that lingered above them took on the same soft purple hue, defiantly declaring that the sky was of the same substance as the land beneath it. The horizon stood as a constant reminder that heaven and earth were always meant to be joined. Eventually, the lavender clouds, set against a muted peach sky, were transformed in an instant to a dazzling magmatic orange as the sun ascended the horizon behind the mountains.
Jacob was lost in thought as he took in the morning spectacle. He felt a terrible rift within his heart. On one side of the divide, the beauty of God’s creation that surrounded him was undeniable, yet under the same sky where the morning made its glorious display, there was immeasurable suffering and pain. His brief time with Daniel may have begun to shake the devastating stalemate in his soul, but now he felt the deep dislocation of feeling, at once, deeply connected to the world God had made, all the while longing to escape its suffering.
“Have you spent any time in the valley before now?” asked Zeph.
Jacob answered, “I used to pass through back in high school whenever my friends and I would head up to Big Bear to snowboard. It looks like quite a bit has changed. I remember this area blowing up during the real-estate boom with new housing tracts everywhere, but it looks like most of them have been cleared out.”
“Yeah,” said Zeph, “Everything north of Winchester Avenue and east of I-215 has been demolished. Steve Wong owns an aggregate firm from all of the homes and strip malls that were demolished out here. He brought in demo crews that were clearing 500-1000 homes a day. When they were blasting foundations, this whole valley sounded like a war zone. All of the land has been re-purposed for agricultural and ranching use. Most of the farmers are growing grain, and selling to the brewing industry in San Diego. 25,000 acres of the valley was just recently sold off to a ranching consortium to be used to raise cattle. They should be moving in within the next few months.”
It was jarring for Jacob to see an area he was familiar with, that had once been so densely populated with suburban housing tracts, be converted back to rural lands. He would be taking an integral role in overseeing this transition with the RRD, but what had seemed like an abstract concept took on new reality as he traversed the valley with Zeph. For now, the neighborhoods on the west end of the valley remained intact, as occupancy rates were still high, but that could change if economic conditions worsened.
“So, Daniel tells me that you run an environmental engineering firm, and that your primary focus is bringing sustainable energy technologies to the Southern California region, and that your biggest project is on the Salton Sea fuel pipeline.”
Zeph answered, “That’s correct. I run a firm called PostCarbon Energy and Engineering. We go by PCE2. We have a large contract with the Salton Sea Energy Corp., which is taking up about sixty-five percent of our workload. However, a good portion of our work is assisting with the building of sustainable energy platforms for the residents and businesses; only about ten percent of our energy comes off the grid, or from fossil fuels. We are hoping to eliminate the need for these energy assets soon. though.”
The Salton Sea Energy Corporation had figured out a highly efficient means of growing algae fuel stock in the brackish, polluted waters of the Salton Sea. Its technological breakthrough had made the Southern California desert into the new Saudi Arabia for fuel production. A new pipeline was being constructed from the Salton Sea to the old San Onofre nuclear power facility that had been converted as a fuel processing plant that would transform the algae fuel-stock into usable fuel for transportation and military purposes. The Salton Sea energy fields had turned Southern California into one of the most strategically important locations for the NATO war effort after being cut off from key fuel producing states in Central Asia and in the South China Sea.
“How secure are your energy assets, both here and in the Salton Sea area?” asked Jacob.
“Well, the pipeline running from Salton Sea to San Onofre is fairly secure. We are laying it underground to keep it safe from bombing and sabotage, and San Onofre is now secured by Camp Pendleton Marines. Our biggest concern is security during construction. Alderman Campbell runs a security firm that provides armed guards across the construction zones. We have had some minor skirmishes with Reconquista troops that have managed to cross the border, but there has been no major damage to the pipeline itself.”
“And here in the valley?”
Zeph answered, “We have tried to set up systems to ensure that each property holder can produce their own electricity through photovoltaic solar systems, so unless someone wants to go to the hassle of stealing large solar systems, our electrical grid is fairly secure. The bigger concern is the biodiesel plant in south Temecula, which is a likely target should the Reconquista make its way this far northwest. We do have long-term plans for producing algae stock through a network of farm ponds that would be dug throughout the valley, but we are holding off on this until either the war ends or the security situation is less .”
As Jacob and Zeph discussed energy and resource concerns in the valley, they approached the French Valley Café. The café stood on a bluff above the south end of the French Valley Airport runway. It had a commanding panoramic view of the entire Temecula Valley. In the clear blue February sky Jacob could see the mountains that encircled the valley. Mount San Jacinto towered to the northeast, its north face that rose above Palm Springs was the largest vertical rise in the lower-48 states. San Jacinto is the last major peak in the Peninsular Ranges that run from the tip of the Baja peninsula all the way to Southern California. Due north, Mount San Gorgonio rose up into the horizon, capped with snow as it scraped the winter sky at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation. San Gorgonio was part of the Transverse Ranges that ran east to west from the California deserts all the way to the Channel Islands that rose from the Pacific, west of Santa Barbara. Jacob again felt a deep connection between himself and these beautiful lands rise up in his heart that had been missing during his long years away from California. This was a place worth cultivating and protecting, and the sense that God had called him to this place for a reason rose up within him. Maybe, he hoped in the quiet of his own heart, this would be a place where he could find healing and respite from the horrors that lay behind him. Maybe here he could find himself again, and find his way back to Sophie, Evan, and Rachel, who remained in Chicago.
Jacob received a call from Campbell informing him that he wouldn’t be available until the afternoon, so Zeph continued to give him a tour of the east end of the valley. French Valley was raised above the Temecula Valley by a couple hundred meters along Winchester Avenue, giving way to rocky knolls and outcroppings and small tracts of winter barley fields dotted along the countryside, before the valley gave way to the small ranges leading toward Hemet. Wind swept through the emptiness of the valley, and the old housing tracts east of Winchester had been replaced by small farms that supplied the region with produce. Jacob felt the echoes of the Old West when the Butterfield Stagecoaches used to track up and down the valley, and where the expansive Vail Ranch dominated the region that was once held by Juan Murrieta in the days of the great Spanish rancheros. As the afternoon crept in, Zeph circled his wagon back toward the French Valley Café.
“I’ve got some business back in Chaparral,” said Zeph, as they pulled up to the café, “So, I am going to drop you off here. I already spoke with Alderman Campbell, and he will give you a ride back to your place after the two of you are done meeting.”
Jacob stepped in through the double-doors at the entrance of the French Valley Café, which was fairly empty after the lunch hour. The amber light of afternoon poured in through the hurricane shuddered windows, throwing slanted bars of light onto the hardwood floors of the small café. He could hear the clatter of knives and pans in the kitchen, and constant swearing as the crew prepared for dinner. He smiled at this, having worked as a line-cook during his undergrad years, as he realized that the dynamics of working in a kitchen were universal, regardless of time or location. He saw Campbell sitting at the breakfast bar conversing with a few other large, well-armed men, whom he took for security workers.
“Alderman Campbell,” said Jacob, as he approached the hulk of a man.
“Captain Brandt,” answered Campbell in his gravely baritone brogue, as he extended his hand to shake Jacob’s “Good to see you again, .”
Jacob was in his late thirties and would have bristled at the thought of being called son by just about anybody. However, both Daniel and the Alderman seemed to use it with a familiarity that disarmed Jacob. With his own difficult relationship with his , he had lacked any real father figure since his teenage years, and he welcomed the idea that these men could provide something he had been sorely missing for quite some time. Jacob also noticed the bruising ache running up to his elbow as he shook Campbell’s hand. The man had a vise grip that gave visceral proof that the man had not lost much, if any, of his native strength, even though he was well into his fifties.
Campbell motioned to one of the booths against the back wall of the restaurant, “How about we take a seat somewhere a little more private.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Jacob.
A waitress followed with glasses of water, empty mugs, and a carafe of coffee as the men seated themselves at the booth. The privacy of the booth afforded them the opportunity to discuss sensitive matters outside of earshot of other guests.
“Zeph told me you run a private security firm, so I am assuming that you are a military man yourself?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Campbell, “I am a Gulf War vet, served as a sergeant in the British 1st Armored Division for about ten years before going into investment banking in the City of London.”
Campbell had served with distinction in the British Army before heading to the City of London to manage precious metals portfolios. He had been in the UK until about a year before the global economic meltdown that was caused by the real estate derivatives market. He had become an accomplished trader, and was among the few who saw trouble on the horizon for the world economy. Instead of running the risk of losing his investments, he cashed out and moved to Temecula, where one of his friends ran a local vineyard. He waited out the crash before buying property in the valley, and was able to scoop up a plot of land in French Valley about four miles north of the café off of Winchester Avenue for a fraction of its original value. After the war began, and residents began their exodus to the city, he bought the strip of land adjacent to the airport, primarily because it was already being used to grow grain. He built the café only a year before Jacob’s arrival, mainly as a meeting place for the farmers of French Valley.
“So, I am assuming you have a clear sense of the security concerns facing the region.”
“That I do. For the most part things are relatively quiet here in the valley. The only problem we face now is keeping the roads that connect the area secure. From time-to-time a new breed of highwaymen does their best to rob local travelers. We encourage travelers to carry arms as they move about the valley. The real challenges are in the Salton Sea region where my security forces team with Marines from Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms to keep the area clear of Reconquista forces that conduct raids from the border. There are serious breaches at the Mexicali and Nogales crossings, and they have easy access into the Arizona and California deserts.”
The Reconquista campaigns began under the leadership of Gen. Miguel Sanchez, a former leader in the Sinaloa drug cartel. After the United States legalized drugs a few years prior to the war, many of the Mexican drug cartels found themselves suddenly out of work. The American government only did business with a few former drug trafficking organizations that went legitimate after the drug prohibition was lifted. These former cartels held legal distribution rights from South America up through the Central American corridor. While the Mexican economy was strengthened by the newly legalized drug trade, violence from former cartels, now out of business, escalated over the years. Gen. Sanchez was a charismatic figure who wielded tremendous influence in northwest Mexico. He led the Reconquista campaign with the promise of seizing new lands in the American Southwest, with the goal of establishing a new, independent Mexican state that included Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Sonora, and all of Baja California. It was fairly common knowledge that he was being funded, armed, and supplied by the EAC as a means to keep American forces occupied away from the main war conflict zones along the Eurasian Front and in Southeast Asia. Sanchez, to this point had only conducted harassing raids aimed at interrupting production in the Salton Sea basin. His short term aim was to cut off supply of bio-fuel to NATO military forces. His long term ambition was a Mexican-American state that absorbed California and much of the Southwest which would echo the old glory of Mexico under General Santa Ana.
“Is there any chance that the Reconquista campaigns in the Salton Sea make their way to this area?”
“Over the short term, no,” answered Campbell, “Southern California is a major military hub, with the American Navy, Marines, and Air Force holding major bases throughout the area. But, the long-term concern hangs over us constantly. If the Chinese and Russian navies chose to, they could stage an invasion of the American Southwest from the Sea of Cortez. Sanchez’s forces have a stranglehold on all of northwestern Mexico, and could allow EAC forces to establish a North American beach-head. This is why I was so relieved to hear that we were getting a RRD agent with military experience. It should be fairly easy to secure the valley roads from bandits, but we need serious strategic contingency planning, should the war reach California.”
“Are there any current plans in place?” asked Jacob.
“Nothing to speak of,” said Campbell, “This valley would see a good deal of aerial combat, since it is sandwiched between the military presence in San Diego to the south, and the deserts to the east. We do not have a network of bomb shelters for residents, should the fight come this way. An even graver concern is the strategic importance of the I-15 and I-215 and Highway 79 corridors. I-15 and 215 connect to Interstate 10, which is the key east-west artery running to the desert. These roads would be critical for the EAC to capture if they want to take control of the Salton Sea fields. Highway 79 also connects to the deserts outside of Warner Springs, and even though it would be more of a challenge to move men and materiel along this route, you can bet that the EAC is well aware of it. We anticipate that the EAC values these routes over Interstate 8 in San Diego, because we are less populated up here, and we don’t have the military presence that exists to the south.”
Jacob asked, “What about the Camp Pendleton Marines? Don’t they have access to the Temecula Valley since their base is just over the Santa Ana range?”
“They are in the process of cutting transport lines to I-15, but as it currently stands, they would have to stage defensive operations via helicopter or cut across Highway 74 from Orange County into Lake Elsinore or use Highway 76 from Oceanside. The 74 is such a narrow artery and an easy target for aerial bombing if the EAC decided to invade the region, so the Marines will only use it if they have to.”
“I am assuming you have access to military forces through your security company,” said Jacob. “Is there any way you can help me set up a meeting with them so that we can begin planning for the eventuality of an EAC invasion?”
“Yes,” said Campbell emphatically, “That is the whole reason I asked to meet with you today. I’d like to set something up within the next month so we can begin the planning process. While an invasion remains a remote possibility as it currently stands, we have to be prepared in case it does come.”
Jacob and Alderman Campbell conversed into the early evening until dinner guests began filtering into the café. Campbell had helped convince Jacob of the strategic importance of his RRD assignment. This was going to entail far more than overseeing the rural reclamation process, it was going to involve a good deal of military coordination to be prepared, should war reach American shores. He was gaining a clearer picture of why the Department of the Interior had approached him with the job in the first place. Most RRD agents were selected because of their engineering and construction skills as the American population shifted, but Southern California was a region that was not only going to be important for agricultural and energy production purposes, but it was a strategically critical military zone that had to be secured at any cost. He was glad that he could lend his skills and experience to this effort.
As the dinner rush began at French Valley Café, the two men headed outside and Jacob asked, “Do you mind if I catch a ride with you back to Chaparral? Zeph had to head back down there after he dropped me off.”
“I was already planning on it. I am headed to St. Jude’s to meet up with Daniel for the evening. If you don’t mind hanging tight for a few minutes, I parked my Jeep down at the airport parking lot. It’ll be a few minutes before I will be back here, then we can leave.”
“Not a problem, I could use the fresh air anyway.”
As the Alderman left, Jacob retrieved a can of Copenhagen out of his jacket pocket and placed a wad of chew in his lower lip. It had been something he picked up as a soldier and some habits die hard.
He stepped out into the chilled evening air atop the hill where the café stood and took in the sunset out to the west. The cool purple clouds were lit by a blazing pink at their edges as the sky darkened over the Santa Rosa Plateau a few miles away. Jacob thought it looked like a feast for the eyes set out upon a broad earthen table. As he reflected on his conversation with Alderman Campbell, he felt something well up within him that he hadn’t felt in many years – resolve. He hadn’t been faced with a mission that he truly believed in since the early days of the war. He knew that the task before him was something he was not only up for, but that he wanted to execute with excellence. The peace and safety of the valley residents could depend on how well he did his job.
After returning to Chaparral, Jacob cleaned up and changed clothes in his apartment. Within thirty minutes he crossed the threshold into St. Jude’s Tavern. He approached the bar where a familiar man, wearing a white oxford shirt, a blue bowtie, and suspenders, smoked his customary cigar carried on with Mak as she served up wine and beer to the guests. Hank loved holding court, whether his audience was one or many, and as Jacob drew near, he could see how Mak enjoyed his company.
“Well, if it isn’t the devil himself,” said Jacob as he patted Hank on the back and bellied up to the bar.
“Captain Brandt! How the hell are you?”
“Doing just fine Hank, and you?”
“Let’s see here,” said Hank with mischief rising in his eyes, “The world is going mad with this damned war, between my ex’s alimony and my daughter’s Stanford tuition, I am being bled dry, and I’m stuck in the abyss of writer’s block for a column for The Recorder that’s due to hit next week. I’m sure to catch more hell for it than the last one I just wrote. Other than that, I’m doing just fine.”
“What is this article about?”
Hank answered, “Well, I am writing an article on the Reconquista. I know what the blasted thing is about, but I’m not sure I’ve got the gumption to write it. A man cannot write without courage, you know.”
Jacob asked, “What’s bothering you so much about it?”
“Anyone with half a brain in their heads knows that the EAC has been funding the Reconquista for years,” Hank said as he exhaled smoke from his cigar, “The red-blooded American in me says damn the Mexican border, we should head in there and wipe out Gen. Sanchez’s forces out so they no longer pose a threat to our lands. But, then there’s part of me that asks the question – why – why would the EAC sustain a military action that has amounted to nothing more than skirmishes at our borders that have accomplished absolutely nothing? They’d be pissing precious resources away if they didn’t have something larger in mind.”
“What do you think that is?” Jacob asked.
“I think they know just how unpopular this war is. There’s hardly any support for it here or amongst other NATO states, if the reports are to be believed even in the EAC itself. No-one fighting this hopeless war has proffered one good reason why we are fighting it, yet here we are, pushing the whole human race to the brink of annihilation.”
Jacob nodded his head in agreement; this very sentiment had been what had made fighting in the war so odious to him over the past few years.
Hank continued, “I don’t know what they are planning, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that an invasion is afoot.”
“That’s quite the theory you’ve got there, Hank,” Jacob said.
“Therein lies the problem, I’m already on the government’s shit list over my candid reporting and editorials on the war, and this article will be one more reason for them to shut me down.”
“I don’t envy you, Hank,” said Jacob.
“Well, I’ll figure it out. I’ve always had a nose for trouble, so what’s a little more, right?”
Mak came over as the men were conversing at the bar with two pints of an imperial stout, “This one’s on the house, boys.”
“Why, thank you kindly,” exclaimed Hank, as he lifted his glass full of the black, heady ale to Mak while Jacob nodded in agreement.
“No problem, Hank,” said Mak, “It looks as if you have found yourself another Presbyterian to pick on here. I am surprised to not see you bursting with glee.”
“Oh, jeez,” laughed Jacob.
“I must thank you again, my dear Mak. I didn’t take the opportunity to give Captain Brandt here a proper grilling last night. I shall not pass up the opportunity tonight.”
“Good luck Jacob, you’re going to need it,” said Mak, as she made her way to a group of customers waiting further down the bar.
“Spoken like a true Calvinist,” shouted Hank as she walked away. Mak turned her head back to Hank and winked. He loved how much joy she took in stirring the pot.
Jacob drew down half of the pint in preparation for Hank’s onslaught, “All right Hank, fire away, my friend.”
A devious smile broke between his cheeks as Hank said, “Why. Jacob, you act like you are preparing for a fight.”
“No, I act as if I am a mouse being batted about by a cat who has no interest in eating it. Just remember to take it easy. You’re talking to a soldier, not a scholar, like Daniel.”
“Ah, but you see, I cannot,” answered Hank as he puffed his cigar, “I cannot help myself. I must discover what a man believes and why. We all believe something, you see, or at least ought to. I find nothing in this world is more terrifying or wasteful as a man who believes in nothing.”
“I didn’t take you as the believing type,” retorted Jacob.
“Nonsense, I am as true a believer as you, or Daniel, or anyone else here in this tavern. The only thing I differ on from them is what I believe, and my reasons for doing so.”
Jacob asked, “And what is it that you believe?”
“When it comes to God, not much at all, if that’s what you mean,” said Hank, “I don’t have much quarrel with the notion that he might exist, but I do take issue with the idea that he is relevant in any way to what transpires on this tiny, cosmic rock we call home.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know about you, but if there’s an all-powerful, supposedly all-loving God out there like your religion teaches, and others with it, he’s done an awful job of attending to the affairs of this world, wouldn’t you say? I see no evidence that, if God exists at all, he has any real interest over what transpires on Earth. So, why should I take an interest in him?
Jacob scratched his mustache as he thought. Often he didn’t feel altogether different from Hank over this very question, which opened up new questions in his own mind. Why did he believe in God or anything at all for that matter? He could see that this was going to be an interesting conversation, indeed.
“So all you have established is that God doesn’t factor much into your beliefs one way or the other. You still haven’t answered my question,” smiled Jacob.
“I am a reluctant humanist, and a thoroughgoing individualist.”
“A reluctant humanist?”
“Yes,” said Hank, “I am reluctant in my humanism because I find nothing more capable of vast and reckless stupidity than the human race. But, and this is an important but, to me there is nothing more precious in the whole world as the individual soul. Armed with the power to choose, the individual can forge his destiny in the world, create meaning where there is none, and rise above the nonsense that humans collectively tend to step in whenever given the .”
“You don’t see meaning inherent to this world?” asked Jacob.
“No, the world and everything in and beyond it, including the human soul, has value in its is-ness, its being, not in an inherent purpose or final destiny. The world is what it is, a wildly dangerous and beautiful place full of terror and splendor. I celebrate the world as it is, not the world as I’d like it to be. Man doesn’t derive his meaning or purpose from the world, or something inborn within him. He must choose his destiny; this is either his ladder to the stars or a boardwalk to mediocrity or worse. A man makes his purpose amid all the chances, and sense, and nonsense in the world, or he doesn’t. This is up to him and him alone. It is in this power to choose that I believe the individual, regardless of race or sex or creed, can ascend to glory if he chooses to. Some ascend, and many muddle about, content with the worthless trivialities the rest of our race amuse themselves with. But, there’s glory in the choice and glory in the man who chooses to rise above.”
Jacob saw the intensity in Hank’s eyes, and found himself envying the profound conviction with which he held his beliefs.
“So you don’t see history as something that is heading towards something, to an end point, that is?”
“History is a byproduct of accident and catastrophe and the human struggle to make sense of the chaos. I suppose it will one day come to an end, whether that is with a bang or a whimper, I don’t know, and I doubt I’ll be around to see that day.”
“I wish I had the same clarity of belief that you do, Hank,” said Jacob
“What do you mean by that,” asked Hank as he puffed his cigar.
“Well, you’d think that being the son of a pastor that I’d have a better grip on the consequences of my beliefs. I can cite the catechism, question for answer, and several passages in Scripture even now after all these years, but I struggle to reconcile how those truths correspond to real life, my life,” answered Jacob.
“I was born and bred as the son of a fiery Pentecostal preacher and closet drunk,” said Hank, “Daddy tried his damndest to beat God into me, and the world damn sure beat him out of me. You’re a preacher’s kid, too. Why do you keep on believing?”
Jacob gulped down the rest of his ale, and signaled to Mak for another round, “That’s kind of complex. I have found that my belief in God is something I can’t escape. I guess Jesus holds onto me more than I hold on to him. I do see the deep contradictions between the way the world is, and the way I hope it would be. I suppose this is why I feel so tortured within my beliefs, as meager as they are.”
“Yet you still hold to them somehow?”
Mak returned with another round of ale for Hank and Jacob, and Hank held up his glass to Jacob’s and let out his customary cheer, “To better times.”
“Cheers,” said Jacob, “I can drink to that.”
After drawing down the ale from his pint, Jacob continued, “I have a tough time getting past irreconcilable inconsistences in the world. I have seen men blow each other to bits in this war, and at the same time, the same men show incredible kindness and courage in the face of danger. This world is so messed up and so beautiful all at once. My brother Malachi taught me, probably without him even knowing it, to see the beauty of creation. When I look on the mountains and the sea and the sky, I hear a language of praise and goodness; that God made the earth to be a place of beauty and meaning. But, there’s also a lot of ugliness here, too. I’m not so sure if it’s that the world isn’t right for us, as much as it’s that we aren’t right for the world.
“I have often thought it would be easier if I could let go of my faith, and believe something more like you do. I think it would make getting along in life a bit easier. All I know is that, if you pulled the thread of faith out of me, I would probably unravel in a pile of tangled yarn with nothing left to hold me together.”
“I envy that,” said Hank, “I often wish that I could have faith, but everything I see in the world tells me that holding to faith in a benevolent God is a fool’s errand.”
“Really?” asked Jacob, somewhat surprised at Hank’s confession.
“Why do you think I admire a man like Daniel? He’s the closest thing in the world that I have to a true friend. I know he has had his own battles, still he holds on. There’s comfort in having a friend of such tremendous faith when I have none for myself.”
“How so?” asked Jacob.
“Well, I think there is a fear inherent to any agnostic like me, that I could be entirely wrong. I believe we are drawn to our fears; we try to translate them into something understandable. I’ve often told him this. Being close to him is a way for me to experience a faith that I cannot grasp myself.”
“Interesting. You’re a complicated man, Hank, I’ll give you that.”
“That, sir, is an understatement,” said Hank as he turned to Jacob with a stare that nearly bore a hole in him, “Look, Jacob I won’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t believe, but I see something in you that I have seen in scores of young men who have come home from the war. I’ve never been a soldier, and I cannot know what y’all go through, but I grieve over how the war has gutted so many good men. I just hope you can find your guts again, find that belief that rises up within you and carries you on in life. Too many fail to do this and are destroyed. Find the glory that rises up like fire in your bones, or you will be forever lost my friend.”
Hank slapped some cash on the bar for the round as Jacob thanked him. The two of them polished off the last of their beers in silence.
Jacob rose from the bar and said, “Hank, this has been, uh, an enlightening conversation. But, I think I’ll be on my way. I think I am going to knock off early tonight so I can be somewhat lucid for church in the morning.”
The two shook hands firmly in mutual affirmation of the gravity of what they shared, as Hank grinned through the stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth and said, “Sounds good my friend, just know I won’t take it so easy on you next time.”
Jacob laughed as he left the bar and made his way to the exit. He went out into the cold night, with the winter moon casting its pale light over Chaparral and took the short path to his apartment across the street. His mind was swirling, not so much from the beer, but from the strange fullness of spirituality and humanity that resided at St. Jude’s. It was odd, he thought, that he felt somehow encouraged in his own faith from a man who avowedly professed to have none. He also noticed how he felt no terror at the fact that there was no bourbon waiting for him in his room. The last two nights were the first two where he felt no compulsion to drink himself out of consciousness. Returning to the quietude of his own thoughts was like coming home to a stranger he had left behind long ago. As he undressed himself in his apartment and readied for bed, Jacob did something he had not done since the battle of Gdynia. He prayed, and he slept.