Charlie On The Edge of Town
Some live restlessly, willing to own up to a level of insanity for the sake of individuality or in the name of personal freedom. Others prefer to comport themselves in a somewhat military manner. They report to duty, swab their personal decks, and steadfastly rely upon that which is certain. They are tidy little vessels navigating life, carefully avoiding the icebergs and reliably maintaining, at least the illusion, of propriety. These folks can barely imagine life “outside-the-box.” They “stay the course,” compliant with the ways and means of normalcy as dictated by society. Their motto, pay the piper in advance to eliminate the risk of being singled out later.
There are, of course, renegades among us. Those who say they were “Born, Born to be wild.” Their lives are spent adrift from the fleet. They are plagued by the errors of their ways, often miserable to the degree that misery seems normal. These people, seemingly incapable of change, rarely follow the rules. Life for them is a never ending Road Runner vs. Wiley Coyote cartoon, where the Road Runner is a metaphor for life and being Wiley Coyote means suffering a thousand painful deaths. They forge their identity out of scars, tattoos and rap sheets. They swing wildly never knowing if they will hit a home run or strike out.
Charlie Bishop is a renegade. He grew up in Fairhope, Alabama surrounded by acres of crops. Everyone who lived in the little town called Charlie by his full name because one name didn’t seem enough for a local legend. Back then people wouldn’t say so but they admired Charlie’s complete disregard for the law, including the law of gravity. He was a confident man; a leap-before-you-look sort-of-guy. Like when he climbed a grain silo, wasted on moonshine, in a wind storm, said it had a rocket in it from the Cold War. He was nearly fifty feet up, shouting about rocket fuel when he teetered on the top rung of the ladder, laughing crazy, even as he fell headfirst into cotton bail.
Another time he tied up the manager of Judge Roy Bean’s Saloon, pretended he was the new bartender for a few hours, until somebody heard the bar owner grunting and kicking in the closet. While “bartending” he’d gotten himself half lit on whiskey. He’d drunk enough he didn’t want the party to end. He grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels before he ran out screaming, “Can’t you take a joke Emmett!” Charlie came back in the very next day, even though Emmett had fired off two rounds at his silhouette as it cut across the pasture behind the bar. Neither was the sort to hold a grudge longer than the second round of drinks.
Charlie had stories; stories that reeked of crazy impulse and tragic consequences. His stories were wrought with mayhem and self-destruction. It must have been his destiny to radicalize the world through his personal martyrdom and oft delayed revelation.
One Easter Charlie and his friends decided they were going to kill the Easter Bunny in Jesus’ name. Rabbits were pretty abundant in Fairhope but they couldn’t find one that day. Charlie started shooting into rabbit holes. The second hole had a rock in it. The bullet ricocheted out of the hole and into Charlie’s shin. Blood gushed out of the wound, soaked his jeans, and left a blood trail where he hopped. Tiny and Leroy helped him back to his truck. And, as hobbled as he was from being shot, he insisted on driving. Said Tiny was too small to see over the steering wheel and Leroy had been drinking. Charlie had had plenty to drink too but it was his truck.
When Deputy Wilkes pulled him over he’d lost a lot of blood, his voice was woozy, and Wilkes wouldn’t let him explain why he was in a hurry. He kept saying, “License and registration;” until Charlie opened the car door and fell out onto the ground. Wilkes went sheet white when he saw Charlie’s bone protruding from the bloody denim. He shouted, “Get back in there and follow me. That mess isn’t getting in my car!”
After that Charlie felt a sort of camaraderie with soldiers who’d been wounded on the field of battle. That’s why he insisted his gang build a communal living space, a compound. A place that was open but nothing hippy, just a hangout to get drunk, fire guns, and tell tales to pretty women. They had a low-maintenance sustenance farm and gifts from whoever came and went. When they did work they got straight to it, bailing cotton or corn, sometimes cutting watermelons off the vine or loading truck for the older farmers.
When winter came they rolled joints out of freezer weed and tobacco and told jokes until their stomachs ached; or at least that’s how Charlie told it. Others said Charlie’s dwindling supplies and excessive drinking had taken their toll on his mind. What I know for certain is that nobody saw any point in being sober those years which meant plenty of empty bottles for target shooting. If anyone passed the compound, night or day, they weren’t surprised by gunfire, only cautious. Lovers came and went, sort of like fire flies in the daylight. There were furies, rages, brawls, addictions, illness, loss and suicide. The only stable thing was instability. Everything became as clear a Saran wrap and just as tough to smooth out. Their lives were knots. At the compound people’s tethers to society had become frayed and the town’s people were afraid of all of it. A few folks at Charlie’s couldn’t tell what was real and what an illusion was on the days the party went too long. Tiny worried the Michelin Man might melt even though Charlie told him he wasn’t made of snow. Leroy wanted to know why the Michelin Man was white if he’s made of tires.
There was dangerous talk too about robbery and assassination. When they got twisted they wanted to get back at the rich or the government or both. They wanted to exercise their right to bear arms. The drum beat of hardship, unrelenting, cultivated loneliness and despair. These weren’t willful acts against anyone or anything but a sort of undoing born of excess. They had become what grows out of putrid soil in the absence of light. It can be hard to find one’s way back in the dark. What could Charlie do? He lived on the edge of town for too long.
Charlie’s 40th birthday was on the Fourth of July. The few that remained at the compound, too sick to leave, didn’t feel like celebrating. He spent hours handing out little red, white and blue flags to people headed to the stadium fireworks display. It was like he was trying to say, “I’m one of you.” Or, “We all live here.” Lots of people took the flags but most didn’t give much thought to who handed it to them. It was like taking a take-out menu from somebody off the street. You might order the Mushoo-Pork but you don’t recall how you got the menu in the first place.
Another time he offered the town’s scout leader the run of his compound, for the troupe’s military games. The scout leader said they wished they could, but it wasn’t safe, “Too much debris lying around.” Or at least that had been the original excuse. In response, 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, and a world of other junk he’d called again to make his offer. The troupe leader said they were grateful for the offer but they still couldn’t use it because it was an uninsured location. Charlie made more calls, sold everything he could find that was worth anything and bought an insurance policy to cover the games. The troupe leader said they weren’t going to hold the games at Charlie Bishop’s place, period.
Charlie 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 because his dignity had been damaged. He had bought insurance. It was a free offer. The compound never looked or felt better. Charlie insisted that disregarding the scout master wasn’t the point. He really wanted to fix this. He knew how people saw him and he wanted them to have new eyes. Charlie had a vision because pride and dignity have their own momentum. They grow like wind whipped into a tornado, picking up speed, spitting out dust and debris, a force, unstoppable. To have dignity and to belong, these feelings compound upon themselves.
Fact is, Charlie Bishop was bound to take on the good and the bad in the world sooner or later, that’s just who he is. But his being “born wild” doesn’t mean he’s doomed to spin forever out-of-control. Life’s not all chaos and negation. There is an order to society and for Charlie Bishop it’s more like being king of the beasts, initiating, calling out, instigating, inciting, just to see what happens, just because he’s alive.