Literary Fiction

An Uncertain Light by Kelle Grace Gaddis

Sleep is a type of dying we enter each night. If lucky we rise from our rest in peace, our pillowed tombs, to see another day. There are miracles all around me, thought Amari the morning of his trial as yet unable to imagine that he’d be convicted.

The prosecutor vigorously shook hands with the grieving families for whom he was a hero while Amari’s attorney flicked a piece of lint off the edge of her skirt. She regretted taking Amari’s case because the lawyers of terrorist suspects were demonized.
The judge’s air conditioner at home was broken, causing him heat-induced insomnia the night before the trial. If asked to choose between a nap and justice, the latter might have lost to physical need. Outwardly, he appeared solemn as he reflected on the type of fan he’d purchase on the way home.
The jurors were edgy from an excess of coffee and too eager to appease the bombing victims families. Once dismissed, they bustled into the lobby like chickens into a feed yard, clucking at one another and the media. Some doubted Amari’s guilt in spite of having unanimously elected to convict. They asked how their decision was playing on TV and were relieved when their families assured them they’d done the right thing. Everyone wanted justice – someone had to pay.
The foreman, a curt gray-haired man, had no doubts about Amari’s guilt. He knew the evidence was thin but felt that the mosque Amari attended was evidence enough to link him to the crime. He repeatedly asked his fellow jurors, “What was Amari doing in the United States anyway?”
Amari stood quietly in shock. He hadn’t reacted to the word “guilty.” And, when the bailiff approached him after the trial with cuffs, he’d extended his wrists without resistance. Some mistook Amari’s silence as an admission of guilt, but that wasn’t the case, Faten Amari was an innocent man.

On the way to his cell, walking past the peach-colored walls and steel bars, Amari’s mind drifted back to the day his old uncle told his younger self the story of the thief.
“A thief,” his uncle said, “ran through the fruit market in Dammam whipping items off carts and tables.”
His uncle threw his entire body into the tale, running in place while grabbing imaginary apples, nectarines, and figs from invisible merchants. His arms shot left and right over a dozen times to demonstrate how many vendors the thief had robbed.
Faten laughed, “How could a thief carry so much fruit while running?”
“The thief,” his uncle said impatiently, “had a sling fashioned across his white thawb to conceal the stolen fruit.”
“Didn’t he look lumpy?” Faten asked.
“Lumpy or not lumpy, doesn’t matter Faten, you must listen to understand.”
“Sorry Uncle, what happened next?”
“Soon, another similarly dressed man was running along the path but at a slower pace. The second man’s arms were also loaded with fruit, but he had no sling across his thawb to manage the bulk. When a tourist stepped backward into the path, he tripped the second man, sending him to the ground. Nearby vendors, having heard people shouting “Thief!” beyond their view, were on alert. One mistook the downed man for the thief. He told the vendors next to him and they, in turn, spread the word down the row. The tourist, oblivious to any crime, apologized to the man scrambling for his goods. The man in the dust looked up and said, “It was an accident” giving the tourist permission to go. The gap the tourist left was quickly filled with angry shoppers that had begun to point and murmur “Thief” at the man still on his knees gathering fruit. As the man reclaimed the last fallen nectarine and placed it atop all the other precariously arranged fruit between the crook of his arm and his chest, a righteous man stepped forward assessing the man’s dirty thawb and his array of fruit and snorted, “You are a thief!””
Amari’s eyes grew wide as his uncle continued, “The accused man stood up carefully so as not to drop anything and said, “Sir, you are mistaken.”
“Did they let him go?” Asked Amari.
“The old man ordered his sons to grab the sullied man’s arms sending all the fruit back to the ground. While in their grips the robbed vendors caught up and saw a captured thief. One vendor spat at the man. Another clucked her tongue in disapproval. The crowd began to chant, “Thief! Thief! Thief!” until the eldest son felt emboldened to act before the authority arrived, dragging the man to a nearby chopping block. He swung the block’s ax upward and proclaimed, “You’ll not steal again!” before bringing it down and severing the man’s hand from its wrist. Their captive screamed in horror and pain, “I’m innocent!” The old man became incredulous and hissed at the maimed man, “Justice is served.” The crowd, awash with satisfaction, quickly dispersed. Only I remained. I tried to help him to a doctor but they could not save his hand,” said his uncle.
“Uncle, it’s so unfair!” Faten wailed.
“Good Faten, good,” his uncle said, “you understand the story.”

Faten Amari knew he would get a death sentence and that it would mean years of waiting in fear before his end would come. That night, after the lights dimmed, a cue for the prisoners to go to sleep, he lay awake on his bunk until the guard left to relieve himself. Amari took off his prison jumpsuit and placed it on the floor as if it were a prayer mat. He prayed with the boldness of an older man, someone showered in the light of hope when all hope is lost. When the guard returned Amari was on the floor feigning illness with such conviction that the guard quicklly entered the cell to better assess the situation. Amari grabbed his legs and shouted, “Justice! Justice! Justice!”
The guard beat Amari until his head split like a fallen melon. In the midst of darkness, Amari felt someone take his hand, “Let me tell you the story of a spirit broken free, in search of miracles, beyond the mystery of a deeper sleep.”

Pubished by Vending Machine Press 2017 and Rhetoric Askew 2016.
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“Charlie On The Edge” a significantly different version of this story was published by Clamor in 2013 and another in Rhetoric Askew 2017,

 

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.

 

 

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