"Charlie on the Edge"
by Kelle Grace Gaddis
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.
Our 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. When I was young my family, the Bishop’s, had a good reputation as corn, watermelon and pecan farmers. Growing up I was proud of them, even though from the time I was little I preferred books to farming. I couldn’t wait to go to the university.
I’m also a writer 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 for me 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 it was likely that he had 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, somehow, all that 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.
All 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’re 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. On his second shot he hit a rock. The bullet ricocheted out of the hole and into his shin. When 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 to come 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 patriotic, even sewed a flag onto his camouflage jacket. It’s too bad Charlie never joined the military as a teen it might have done him some good. At forty, 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 just 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 perimeter up to hide the main crop. For daily goods he’d come to rely on the supplies that the new arrivals and passers-through were required to bring in if they wanted to join the group. The baker’s son exchanged bread 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. The smartest was Emmett. He 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 he brought over a keg of Schmidt every time he picked up his supply.
The compound 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 place 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. Those 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 that sort out. This sometimes led to a scrap that ended with black eyes, cracked teeth or somebody getting their nose broken but most people quickly got bored with it and moved on.
A few times, when Charlie failed to pay the electric bill, the compound went dark for a day or two but, as long it didn’t go dry, some stayed. When the power was cut off for three weeks, then the people that had somewhere else to go up and went.
A rational person might of thought of the compound as a liability but not Charlie. 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 descent until it was upon him. I signed my share of the place over to him because I had another income and I wanted him to get caught up. Soon after that though some girl claimed that somebody stole money from her purse and Charlie had to pay her off to keep her from calling the cops. 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 started to stay away like the rest of the good people in town.
I heard that last winter at the compound was pretty rough. Only the most desperate had lingered. When I ran into Charlie on 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 everyone 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 didn’t want to 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.
Toward the end of winter, when I finally 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. They had all been at it too long. At that point empty bottles and ammunition were the only things in abundance. These were used haphazardly 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 the shooting on Charlie and they ended up letting him go. Ironically, when he came out of jail he looked 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.” When I asked why he hadn’t told the police he just said, “Can you imagine Tiny in jail?”
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 an overall sense of loss ripped through the stragglers. Several contemplated suicide but most just crawled their way back to town to beg on street corners. The only stable thing for Charlie was instability. Everything became as clear as Saran wrap and just as difficult to smooth out. His life was in a knot. At the compound people’s tethers to society frayed and the town’s people were afraid of it all.
Some of the folks on the compound could no longer tell what was real and what was 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. Charlie had just shrugged and said, “I suppose that ain’t right.”
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 guess I’m the lucky one to have not gone in too deep.
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. Leroy died of a heart attack and, shortly after that, Tiny passed out drunk on his back and choked on his own vomit. 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 that 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 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 because 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 or perhaps he thought they were symbols of belonging. He gave one to my kid. I guessed he was trying to say, “I am one of you, please accept me.” Of course, most of the people that took the flags didn’t give much thought to who handed it to them. He seemed almost invisible out there, like a guy in a costume handing out restaurant leaflets on the street corner. People might take a menu and even order the Mushoo-Pork but they would have long forgotten how they came to own the menu in the first place. I saw him though, clearer than I ever had, when nobody else could or wanted to. I thanked him for the flag 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. Once again the troupe leader said that he was grateful for the offer. He even told him that it was an ideal location, but insisted that the scouts 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 that used to belong to our mother. He was even willing to sell his pistols and shotguns, said he could get by with the rifle. He bought an insurance policy to cover the games. To make a better impression 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 contacted the main scout headquarters, mailed letters, made phone calls, even sent email from the local library. He went over the scout leader’s head and made sure everybody knew what he thought of that guy. Charlie 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 even though he never quite grasps them himself. But, regardless of the opinions of others, 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.
Kelle Grace Gaddis received her undergraduate degree in Culture, Literature and Arts and her MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from the University of Washington. In 2014-2015 she published work in Clamor Literary Journal, Knot Literary & Arts Magazine, Dove Tales Literary Journal and Blackmail Presses 37th Edition. She is proud to have been chosen as one of Seattle’s “Poetry On Buses” poets, her work appears on Seattle buses beginning in March of 2015. Ms. Gaddis also won a top prize in Poetry.org’s National Poetry Contest in 2004 and she is currently a finalist in a national Chapbook Contest, the winner will be announced in September of 2015. Kelle Grace performs regularly at Hugo House open mics in Seattle, Washington and at other venues in and around the Seattle area.