“Charlie On The Edge” was published by Clamor Literary Arts Journal in 2013.
“The Hot Zone” was published by Knot Literary & Arts Magazine in November of 2014
Charlie On The Edge
After daddy died Charlie managed the farm. That’s when he changed the crops, some of the new ones were legal others not. He kept the corn to hide the weed planted in the middle of the field. For a long time cars passing on the two-lane would have no idea things weren’t how they were supposed to be.
The town’s idea of Charlie is forged out of his rap sheet but his scars and tattoos are his own identity, a map of how he got where he is today. One can tell he is troubled by reading it, the jagged white line from his temple to his lip, a bar fight. The marijuana leaf on his left arm is his idea of a marketing tool. The ornate cross on his right arm proof that he is a good man, or so he tells me. Charlie tries to get along with regular people but I’m not sure if he can stop being himself long enough to change anybody’s mind.
I understand why people react to him the way they do. My wife wants nothing to do with him. I remember Charlie as a kid. He’d be way out at the edge of the ball field swinging wildly before he even got in the game. Putting his full weight into an air ball, always imagining himself the hitter of a home run but rarely even getting a chance to strike out. Nobody picked him to play. Not because he couldn’t hit but because he scared people.
Charlie is a renegade. Me? I teach English Composition at Fairhope Community College in Alabama. I guess I’m not all that adventurous. The college where I work is only ten miles from where I was born. I do all right. My family, the Bishop’s, had a good reputation as corn, watermelon and pecan farmers when I was growing up. I was proud of them even though from the time I was little I preferred books to farming and couldn’t wait to go to the university.
I’m a writer too and figure God put Charlie in my life, to give me a few more stories to tell. Charlie has always been so damn different. Even to look at him. He’s a weird cross between the Marlboro man and Jesus. For a while, although people wouldn’t say so in church, they admired Charlie’s relaxed regard for the law, including the law of gravity. People loved to tell Charlie stories, especially to me, as if I didn’t already know them. Some have said Charlie is the definition of infamy but when I think of him the word that comes to mind is legend.
One time Charlie allowed a traveling fair to set up on the farm. In a small town that sort of thing draws a crowd, probably why he wanted the fair in the first place. Charlie loved an audience. The fair was in late August and a storm had kicked up, heavy rains, lightning, the whole bit. The rides were shut down and a bunch of kids were crying about not getting to ride the Tilt-O-Whirl and Charlie felt bad about it. The teens were worse. They pitched a fit about having paid to prove their guts on the Rotor and The Hammer and wanted a refund if they weren’t going to get to ride those rides. Charlie thought that the bored older boys were as likely to vandalize his property as the fairs. That’s when he tried to take charge. He didn’t want to be associated with failure, even though it was clearly an act of God. Once Charlie got it in his head that he was responsible for everybody’s good time that was that. He decided to climb the farm’s grain silo. Mind you, this made no sense. He was wasted on moonshine and it made him think he was capable of doing the impossible. He saw himself a great man, capable of great things. He was like that when he was liquored up. Right before Charlie began his ascent up the ladder he told the crowd there was a rocket inside it. Put his finger to his lips like he was telling them all a secret and said, “It’s a leftover from the Cold War” and added “I’m going to ride it to the moon!” He was nearly fifty feet up and shouting something about rocket fuel, when he went from teetering on the upper rungs of the ladder, laughing like a fool, to falling headfirst into a cotton bail. It’s a miracle he didn’t break anything. Charlie had knocked the wind out of his lungs and when he finally got up his eyes were so dilated I’m sure he had a concussion too. Charlie didn’t care. The crowd loved it. He got glad backed and a round of applause, these were all the medicine he required.
Sometimes Charlie got ideas. Like the time he tied-up the manager of Judge’s Saloon and pretended to be the new bartender. Charlie was pouring like it was Christmas until somebody heard Emmett kicking in the closet. Per usual Charlie was so lit on whisky that his eyes were rolling around in his head. He didn’t realize that Emmett was genuinely furious. Leroy said, “You better hit it before Emmett gets loose” but Charlie just laughed and sat sipping his Wild Turkey. He never liked to leave a party early and he was plenty cocky when he’d had a few. When the last rope came off of Emmett Charlie grabbed the bottle he was working on and ran into the night with Emmett on his heels. Charlie might have been a marathoner if he wasn’t such a drunk. He had the build. Sure was a sight to see those two zigzagging across the field, Charlie shouting, “Can’t you take a joke Emmett?”
I shot liquor through my teeth when Charlie came back in the next day. Emmett had fired two shots at his silhouette before he’d disappeared beyond the tree line but all had been forgotten when they raised a toast to Charlie’s harvest. I suppose it was good neither man could hold a grudge longer than a round of drinks.
Charlie recollections reek of crazy impulse and tragic consequences but no matter how dire the facts, we all laugh when the stories are told. A Charlie story is always wrought with mayhem and self-destruction even if they are funny. At least that’s how I see it. I always think of Charlie as the sort of man that could radicalize the world through his martyrdom. He’s smart but not wise. What is certain is that when Charlie is around shit happens.
One Easter Charlie and a few of his friends decided to kill the Easter Bunny in Jesus’s name. They had started drinking early on account of the holiday but had decided to stick to beer because it was the Sabbath. Rabbits are pretty abundant in Fairhope but we couldn’t find one in the field that day. Charlie started shooting into rabbit holes with his .22 rifle. His second shot he hit a rock. The bullet ricocheted out of the hole and into his shin. He fell backward. I couldn’t help but hear a Warner Brothers whistling sound followed by a cartoon “Boom!” Even though I knew he was hurt. Then the blood started gushing out of the wound. It soaked his jeans, and left a blood trail where he hopped.
Tiny and Leroy helped him back to his truck but Charlie insisted on driving. He said, Tiny was too small to see over the steering wheel and Leroy couldn’t drive because he was too drunk. Charlie was drunk too but it was his truck and nobody argued because he was wild-eyed from survival adrenaline.
When Deputy Wilkes pulled us over Charlie had lost a lot of blood. Charlie’s voice had become slower, woozy. Wilkes wouldn’t let him explain why he was speeding. He kept saying, “License and registration,” until Charlie opened the car door and fell out onto the ground. When Wilkes saw the pitiful state of Charlie’s leg, he shouted, “You get back in that truck and follow me. That mess isn’t getting in my car!”
One of the stranger things that arose out of that day was Charlie’s newly felt camaraderie with soldiers that had been wounded on the field of battle. Even though he hadn’t been fighting an external enemy he claimed he understood what it was like to be standing tall one minute and taken down the next. I guess he did, even if in this scenario he was both the fallen soldier and the enemy. He became very patriotic, even sewed a flag onto his camouflage jacket. It’s too bad Charlie never joined the service; it might have done him some good. When Charlie realized he was too old to sign-up he was sad about it. He’d already pictured himself as a highly decorated soldier.
The second odd thing was that Charlie liked being in the hospital. He loved that the staff fussed over him. It was during his stay that he decided to transform the farm. Turn it into a communal living space, almost like a barracks but homey like the hospital ward. As soon as he was released he spent the last of his inheritance creating the compound. The place wasn’t anything hippy or cultish like David Koresh’s compound once was, although Charlie bore a certain resemblance to that man. It was a place to hangout, get drunk, fire guns and impress a few women. Charlie had envisioned a tight community and a non-stop party.
The farm was going into decline but Charlie kept the corn up for practical reasons. He’d come to rely on the supplies that the new arrivals were required to bring to the group. There was bread from the baker’s son in exchange for weed and another guy brought used clothes for everybody because he worked part-time at Goodwill. It was like a trade hotel, goods in exchange for a bed and a taste of whatever party was available. Emmett traded beer for marijuana and probably made more profit in resale from the crop than Charlie ever did.
Those that moved onto the compound sometimes found work here and there, bailing cotton or corn, sometimes cutting watermelon off the vine or loading truck for the older farmers. This went into a petty cash jar that was supposed to be for incidentals but, because Charlie liked to say, “A party isn’t a party if we don’t invite Jack Daniels, Captain Morgan and Jim Beam,” most of the money went to the liquor store. Emmett refused to trade in spirits, said it was too expense but at least brought over a keg of Schmidt every time he picked up his supply.
It might have worked with a different group of people. Charlie even had a few lovers come and go, like fireflies at sunrise, but most women found the compound unbearable, partly because women were too easily put upon to cook and do laundry. Mainly though, because it was a smelly, dirty, drunken mess. Certain women can’t be bothered with that burden, especially the kind of goodtime girls Charlie attracted. These ladies were looking for a line, a toke and some drink not a husband.
Charlie didn’t enforce any rules but he was in charge. If anybody else started acting authoritative he’d push them out. When people fought in the compound it often ended with black eyes, a cracked tooth or somebody getting their nose broken. Most people quickly got bored with it and moved on.
A few times Charlie’s compound went dark when he failed to pay the electric bill but as long it didn’t go dry some stayed. The last time, when it was off for three weeks, the people that had somewhere else to go up and went. A rational person might of thought of the compound as a liability. Having a handful of the most stoned drunks in the county firing guns and shattering glass all over the place was dangerous but Charlie took it in stride. I guess he thought it was normal.
He barely noticed his own decent until it was upon him. I signed my share of the place over to him because I had an income. That got him caught up. Soon after some girl claimed somebody stole money from her purse and Charlie had to pay her off to keep her from calling the police. It was all too much to deal with. The college didn’t want me associated with it. Neither did my wife. A co-worker had suggested that I might not be fit to teach because of my association with Charlie. I stayed away.
I heard that last winter at the compound was pretty rough. Only the most desperate lingered. When I ran into Charlie at the edge of town he said it wasn’t so bad. He told me they all got by rolling joints out of freezer weed and tobacco, said he had them all laughing until their stomachs ached, but I could tell he was worried. He wanted me to come over but it’s hard with a family and I couldn’t risk losing my job.
The people that abandoned the compound for town said that Charlie’s supplies had dwindled to the point where two people had to share one potato for dinner. The jar was empty because people were too sick to work. The corn perimeter had become too much for them to manage. When it fell over and revealed the nature of Charlie’s business to every car that passed on the two-lane it was a miracle he didn’t get arrested. Somehow he managed to get the lot cut and dried before the police took notice.
The day I snuck out there I saw it was far worse than I’d imagined. The drinking had taken a toll on people’s minds. Everybody acted like beer was a reasonable breakfast and liquor an even better idea for lunch. This way of being had become a necessity for them. I wondered what Charlie was going to do. There wouldn’t be a new crop anytime soon and the farm was no longer earning anything.
What I knew for certain was that the people that hung out with Charlie saw no point in being sober, even if their resources were thinning. They had all been at it too long. At that point empty bottles and ammunition were the only things in abundance. These were used for target practice. People were afraid to drive by the compound because a stray bullet had shattered a car window. That incident landed Charlie in jail for a month. The law couldn’t pin it on Charlie and they ended up letting him go. He came out looking healthier for the meals and sleep. Later Charlie told me that Tiny had tripped over a log while walking toward a target, causing his gun to fire in the wrong direction. He’d added, “It could have happened to any of us.”
Soon even tight bonds were unraveling on the compound. The fury over the state of the place led to spontaneous tantrums and rages. Brawls, addictions, illnesses and the overall sense of loss ripped through the stragglers. Several contemplated suicide but most just crawled their way back to town. The only stable thing for Charlie was instability. Everything became as clear as Saran wrap and just as difficult to smooth out. Their lives were knots. At the compound people’s tethers to society frayed and the town’s people were afraid of it all. Some on the compound could no longer tell what was real and what an illusion. The party had gone on too long. Tiny was worried the Michelin Man might melt, even though Charlie had told him he was made of tires not snow. Leroy wanted to know why the Michelin Man was white if he was made of tires.
When they were twisted and hungry they wanted to get back at the rich. Charlie railed about his right to bear arms and everybody agreed but nobody acted. They might have if the ammunition hadn’t finally run out. The drumbeat of hardship on the compound had become so unrelenting it had cultivated an emotional malaise, a silent scream that vibrated with bitterness and hurt. Some had infections others pneumonia but mainly loneliness and despair had lodged in their chests and nobody knew a way out. Charlie and his friends were no longer willfully acting against anyone or anything. It was an undoing born of excess. What could Charlie do? He’d lived on the edge of town for too long. The solidity and certainty of life wasn’t his anymore. I’m lucky I got out.
Charlie’s 40th birthday was last Fourth of July. In the months prior, ambulance or coroner had carried away those that had remained at the compound. A few months before Leroy was in the hospital after a heart attack, he didn’t survive the surgery. Shortly after that Tiny had passed out on his back on the sofa and choked on his vomit. And that was it for Charlie. He couldn’t take the pain of it all.
The day the coroner took Tiny to the funeral home was the last day Charlie drank. He felt responsible for his friend’s deaths, even though it wasn’t his fault. He wanted to do something to make it right. He even quit smoking weed and tried to scrape the tattoo off his arm with a knife. That last stunt put him in a different kind of hospital. After a couple of months his mind began to clear. They let him go, he’d changed.
I believe this is why he was handing out those little red, white and blue flags to people as they headed to the stadium fireworks display. Maybe they were little memorials to his friend’s but they were also symbols of belonging. He gave one to my kid. I guessed he was trying to say, “I am one of you, please accept me.” Most of the people that took the flags didn’t give much thought to who handed it to them. To me Charlie seemed like somebody that was almost invisible out there. Like a guy in a costume handing out take-out menus on the street corner. The people that take the menus might later order the Mushoo-Pork but they would have long forget how they came to own it in the first place. I saw him though, clearer than I ever had, when nobody else could or wanted to. I thanked him for his gift and gave him a hug. He’s my brother after all, family.
Charlie has taken to stopping by and giving me updates. He had an idea to get the farm going like in the old days. He says if it works he’ll be able to save up enough money to get the legal crops going. The plan? He offered the town’s scout leader the run of his compound for their bi-annual adventure games, The Scout Medal Roundup. It would be a free the first year and every year after they could pay him for the event. The scout leader told Charlie that he wished they could accept his offer but it wasn’t safe, “Too much debris lying around.” Charlie worked non-stop for two weeks to clear it. When the property was free of car engines, syringes, whisky and beer bottles, burnt shot casing, shards of glass and a world of other junk he’d called to make his offer again. The troupe leader said that they were grateful for the offer, even told him that it was an ideal location, but they still couldn’t rent the compound because it was an uninsured location.
Charlie made more phone calls. He sold everything he could find that was worth anything. Things he’d forgotten that he had when he was high. The antique furniture, pictures, a silver tea set left behind from our mother. He was even willing to sell his pistol and the shotgun, said he could get by with the rifle. He bought an insurance policy to cover the games. Charlie bought some new clothes at the local JC Penny’s and cut his hair. He looked normal. The next time he went to the troupe leader the man told him, “We will not hold the games at Charlie Bishop’s place, period.” When Charlie told me the story I could see it had cut him. I said, “Charlie, forget about the scouts. You’re doing great, let that be enough.” But Charlie couldn’t let it go. He looked up the main scout headquarters. He mailed letters, made phone calls, even sent email from the local library. He went over the scout leader’s head. Made sure everybody knew what he thought of that guy. He was surprised when the man on the other end of the line hung-up. He wasn’t going to allow his newly found dignity to be damaged. He was an insured property owner. The compound had never looked better. It wasn’t right.
Charlie insisted that disregarding the scoutmaster wasn’t the point. He really wanted to fix this. He knew how people saw him and he wanted them to have new eyes. I may be the professor but Charlie is the one teaching the hard lessons. Pride and dignity have their own momentum. They radiate power, growing like wind whipped into a tornado, picking up speed, spitting out dust and debris, a force, unstoppable.
Some are born wild but that doesn’t mean they are doomed to spin out-of-control forever. Life’s not all chaos and negation. There is an order to society. But for my brother Charlie it’s more like being king of the beasts, initiating, and calling out, instigating and inciting change. It’s about pushing the limits and living on the edge, even it cuts you.
The Hot Zone by Kelle Grace Gaddis
[published by Knot Literary & Arts Magazine in November of 2014]
Only one student has made it out of The Clinical Services Building. A petite coed that is crying so hard we can barely understand her. We learn that Professor Mann has multiple gun shot wounds. The girl tells us that three students were also shot in the head at close range. This is what we know but nobody knows why this is happening, except me.
Dr. Gregory Mann, my son’s psychology professor, and I went to dinner a few times. I planned to stop seeing him because my son didn’t approve of my dating. It had felt good to have someone to talk to, to touch. We’d met the first day of the quarter in a coffee shop after I’d taken Johnny to campus.
The young woman has big brown eyes and a dark blonde ponytail. The horrors she’s describing don’t feel like they belong to her. It’s as if she’s half out of her body or mind. Her eyes are beginning to droop as she says, “All of the students were shot in the face. I didn’t recognize any of them.”
She does, however, recognize the shooter, “He’s in my biology class. His name is Johnny Fowler.”
The man next to me realizes that the young woman has an expanding circle of blood on the back of her t-shirt. The softer red of her Houston University top has a hole in it, at its center, like a bulls-eye. The man is calling for a medic, asking her name. She tells us her name is “Jennifer.”
The adrenaline that enabled her to burst out of the main entrance, her human gift of fight or flight, has left her. She begins to hyperventilate as she sinks to the ground. Her body shakes as though submerged in ice. All of us, her audience, her hopeful worshipers, realize that she’s no longer a mysterious angel of information just a woman, around twenty years of age, with a bullet in her arm.
Things are accelerating. The police run left and right as they erect a barricade to keep back the crowd that’s forming. A medic that arrived moments ago takes Jennifer away. A ripple of gunshots can be heard from inside. The crowd gasps in response and blackness forms at the periphery of my vision. I wobble as the dark closes in but manage to grab ahold of a lamppost and steady myself.
A stout man with a reddish beard and a Channel Four News shirt rushes past me and hands a note to the first reporter to arrive. After reading it, the blue-eyed reporter dabs his brow with a handkerchief, and addresses the camera, “The suspect, John Michael Fowler is believed to be responsible for the tragedy that is still unfolding on the Houston University campus.”
I turn and begin to walk as fast as I can toward the parking lot. My sudden movement catches the eye of a policeman. He’s next to me in seconds. When he grabs my arm I turn to see myself in his mirrored glasses, blue, distorted. He says, “Come with me Mrs. Fowler.”
He takes my arm and moves me inside the yellow tape. I don’t correct him but think Miss Fowler, not Mrs. Now I feel like I’m on display, separate.
From my new vantage point I can see HU Hospital, where Johnny was born. It looks more like a prison than a hospital but I’m glad it’s close by. My uniformed escort asks, “Is your husband here?”
I say, “He died in Afghanistan four years ago. We were divorced before that.”
The policeman puts this information down on his notepad and says, “Stay close Miss Fowler.” He then walks toward the beckoning arm of another officer that’s been trying to get his attention.
The sprinklers that were watering the lawn when I first arrived have stopped. I can feel my pumps sinking into the wet grass. I’m grateful that law enforcement trusts me enough to leave me alone, even though my next thought is to run back to my car.
After a quick look around I know that the policeman hadn’t trusted me at all. The number of people beyond the line is growing exponentially. I couldn’t venture back across, no matter what I’m feeling. The news teams are confirming my identity. They’ve posted my picture. Word is spreading. There is nowhere for me to go.
The crowd that’s forming beyond the barrier exudes a mixture of fear and outrage. I stumble backwards a few feet as the mob surges toward the building but the police hold the line. One of the lead officers threatens to clear the area. The crowd steps back on his command.
One man seems interested in me. He’s standing further forward than the rest. His shoulder is nearly up to his eyes, his arm juts out from there. His finger is pointing, it’s like he’s staring down the barrel of a rifle shouting, “You! You!” I put my right hand up as though to shield myself from the sun. I pretend I don’t see him and turn to face the Clinical Services Building and wait.
I regret wearing a flowered dress. It’s too bright. My mother used to say, “An average girl can’t go out in average clothes.” I didn’t want Gregory to see me in sweats. I was here to meet him, no one else. I wasn’t prepared for any this.
Gregory’s text was urgent and cryptic, “Carolyn come to campus. Hurry. Police.” Of course I knew something was wrong but I didn’t think of what it might mean for me.
I cross my arms and bend my knees a couple of times to get my circulation flowing. There are men and women with pit-stained shirts for as far as I can see but I’m cold, light-headed. I bend over and hold my knees until my breathing regulates.
When I stand upright a different news crew is going live behind me. After supplying the same details as the last reporter, the Channel Seven man adds, “The gunman’s motive is unknown” and, “The suspects mother appears to be cooperating with the police.”
This irritates me. What else would I be doing? I’ve never fired a weapon. My husband was the one that liked to shoot. I dig my painted thumbnail into my index finger until it’s nearly as red as my polish.
People are holding one another, crying. Lots are talking on the phone instead of texting, it’s like 1991 except for information is moving faster. Too many people are watching me.
Maybe it is my fault. I’m the one that’s always been attracted to warriors, tough guys like Johnny’s father. Except for Gregory. He is different, honest and thoughtful, dangerously so. People that are used to kindness don’t know that it can burn you like an oven coil.
It hits me all at once he’s probably dead. It’s been nearly thirty minutes since Jennifer fled the building. Mascara is running down my face and my tears have dripped onto my chest, leaving black marks on my breasts. I wipe my face and now black is on my hands too. I’d let myself hope that things would be different.
Two policemen are advancing toward the main entrance of the building. The sun makes it difficult to look at. It’s made of reflective glass. Johnny must have seen them coming. The door swings wide for a few seconds. A dark shape of a man throws an object out of the front door before he quickly disappears back into the building. A sharp shooter on the lawn fires a single shot but he’s missed his chance. The explosion sounds like a clap of thunder, a storm moving across the Gulf, a grenade detonated in midair.
The mob behind me is now screaming, running away from the barrier. I don’t recall falling to my knees but while I’m down I pray please stop him. My ears are ringing. The crowd is a sea of confusion. One of the officers closest to the building isn’t moving. The other is alive but writhing until a team with shields reaches him and carries him back to safety.
In the middle of our last date Gregory had put on his professional cap and said, “Think of me as Professor Mann for a minute, Dr. Mann. I don’t want to alarm you but I’m worried.”
“How so?” I’d asked.
He said, “Have you ever considered counseling for Johnny? My face had turned red. Even though I was relieved that he could feel my son’s intensity. To me being with Johnny was like standing under the power lines, you hope that you’ll be okay but there’s a vibrating danger that can’t be ignored.
I said, “Yes when he was younger I met the school counselor but Johnny wouldn’t open up to him and his father didn’t approve.”
Professor Mann, Gregory, had reached out for my hand but, because talking about Johnny puts me on edge, I’d pulled back and blurted out “I did the best I could!”
Earlier today, around 7am, I called Johnny. I was going to tell him that Professor Mann and I weren’t seeing each other anymore. I hadn’t talked to Gregory about it. First I wanted to see how Johnny would react, but he answered the phone too fast, after only half a ring, and said “What?” His tone threw me out of my head. I ended up asking him what he thought his major might be. He laughed and said, “Psychology” and hung-up.
Johnny had wanted to join the army but I’d discouraged him. He had rolled his eyes when I said, “I don’t want to lose another man to war.” I suppose he knew I didn’t mean it. I wanted to.
The fact was I didn’t want Johnny to kill anyone. I saw what combat had done to his father. I couldn’t deal with that again.
My ex-husband had felt differently about war than I did. He once told me that he thought the soldiers that took the torture pictures at Abu Ghraib back in 2004 had gotten a raw deal.
He had his own trophies, pictures of men and women dead and lying in the dust. Most of his pictures capture the moment just after life has given way to death. The eyes of the deceased transfixed, hopeless and afraid.
I don’t think I would have had the courage to come to campus if the news had reached me before Gregory. It’s not that I don’t care. If I could do something I would. I’m Johnny’s mother. A mother hopes that her son will be a good man but it’s like he’s wired wrong. His fits of rage have always terrified me. Now this. There’s nothing I can do.
When Johnny found his father’s war pictures he wasn’t repelled like me. They fascinated them. I tried to take them away but, at ten, he was too strong for me. It’s hard to explain but having a son like Johnny is like trying to contain a fire with your bare hands. And, being his mother has meant a thousand burns but I didn’t give up on him as a child, only recently when he turned nineteen. I had done my time. I thought I could ease away. It’s not like he shows me any affection. I don’t know if he can.
I think I can smell blood. I cut my leg shaving before I got Gregory’s text. It’s ridiculous now but I’d been disappointed that he’d texted instead of called. I’d waited a minute to read the message. I let myself wipe away a long red line of blood that was running from my knee to the floor. The razor had lifted my skin away like a skin graph. My nylon is stuck to it now. I know it’s going to bleed again the moment I detach it.
A slight wind blows a piece of hair across my eyes. I wipe my gloved hand across my face. I’m going numb in eighty-degree weather. I wonder if I’m in shock but then I think how could I be.
People are whispering Johnny’s name, and the tension is getting as thick as the humidity. There is death expectation all around me like static electricity. It reminds me of Bible stories, of lions and Christians, and the nightly news. My gut is gnawing at me, reaching for my heart.
I suddenly realize I’ve stood here before. There were flowers hanging in baskets, bright carnations of red and white, the university colors, enough for a dozen funerals. But that day, the day I dropped Johnny at college, was a good day. The flowers were welcoming blooms and the banners behind them said “Homecoming.” It was a celebration of new beginnings for everyone that was ready to make a new start.
A couple of days before the school year began I’d packed Johnny’s things and drove him to his dormitory. The black fighting fish he’d bought had died en route. I said, “I’m sorry” but he just shrugged. When he got out of the car he’d flipped the fish out of its bowl onto the grass and smashed it with his boot, gave it’s remain a little kick. He hoisted his military pack onto his narrow shoulders and walked off. There was no goodbye hug. He’s his father’s son.
Now the number of reporters on the scene practically parallels the police response. They talk in short bursts all around me. Everyone is too close. There is palpable hostility of a type I hadn’t felt directed at me since the last time Johnny’s father was home. But, even as I think this thought, I know it’s a lie. I know this feeling well. Johnny hates me just like his father did. The crowd is just an expansion of the constant.
Dear God, I tried but I couldn’t win him over. Now what am I supposed to do? I actually wish his father were here.
Before our divorce Johnny’s dad had reached the point where he no longer wanted to take leave. He said it took him too long to get back into the groove of the mission. He also claimed to feel guilty for leaving his buddies in the hot zone.
When I asked him what it was like in Afghanistan he said, “If you haven’t been in combat you can’t understand what it’s like over there.” I could have said the same thing about living alone with Johnny.
The more time we spent apart the more foreign my husband had become to me. I let him rant. He’d break glasses, lamps, pictures and chairs. He tore the old GE phone off the wall after a dozen drinks and damned me for having paid for a landline.
My mother always said to give a man room, so that’s what I did. When he hit Johnny and me I didn’t stop him. I told Johnny, “Your father has been through a lot.” My allowances didn’t keep him from leaving us and now I don’t know why I wanted him to stay. Of course, Johnny blamed me.
A few weeks ago Johnny asked me to quit calling him “Johnny.” He wants to be called John, like his father. At first I’d called him John Junior but Johnny said, “I don’t have anyone to be junior to.”
That same man in the crowd that had yelled at me before is now shouting, “Stop this! You have to stop this!”
His fury forces me back to the present. I face him and whisper, “I can’t” but there is at least thirty feet between us and he can’t hear me.
He yells, “That’s the killer’s mother!”
I pretend I don’t feel hundreds of eyes on me as I walk a few feet to stand in front of another police car that is parked on the lawn. On the side of the building five young men in red HU lettermen’s jackets tumble out of a window onto the grass, like spent shell casings hitting the ground. I realize one of them is shot, critically injured, thrown from the window by his friends who are still trying to save him.
My mind wanders to other places that have hosted shootings. Hosted? That’s not right. My focus is coming and going, between the past and present. I desperately want to get away.
Two days ago I found a plastic figure, one of Johnny’s toys, lost for thirteen years. A remnant from when my son watched his father leave for war for the first time. Johnny was so angry that he’d repeatedly kicked me in the shins. I couldn’t get away from him even though he was only six at the time. Afterward he hid his green soldiers in crevices all over the house and garden. I’ve been finding their bodies ever since.
A coroner pulls into the hectic lot and the crowd moans in recognition. A man jumps out of the driver’s seat and pushes a green waste disposal container out of his way. This action reveals the empty flower baskets from homecoming week. They are stacked like caskets behind the garbage bin.
Too much confusion and adrenaline has built up for the police to contain. Random screams erupt from within the crowd as they push the barricade again. This time the policeman on the megaphone is ignored and the line is breeched.
The law is struggling to get the crowd back in order. So much so that many officers break from watching the building to help hold people back. The crowd has become a broken power line, flailing, struggling against itself, crackling and contorting with unpredictability.
Nearly everyone is facing away when my son appears in the main entrance. He’s in body armor, standing tall, on the top stair looking down. Time feels suspended. I watch Johnny’s eyes widen as he spots me and smiles. I reflexively smile back even though his intention is clear. I know that I’ll remember this moment forever. Everyone is silent, except for the police shouting, “Put down your weapon!” Johnny begins to raise his rifle but he never gets a shot off.
When my son was little he asked his dad if he had killed many people in the war.
My husband, a military sniper, replied “Of course.” Johnny looked up at his hero and gleefully asked, “Every day?” My husband said, “I didn’t kill people every day but people die everyday. You can count on that.”