UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 02/2012
BEAU JOHNSON

BOBBY CHARLES

         “Was it worth it?” There in the gloom, this is what he asked. It was also not the first time he’d asked the question since waking me. Fumbling for a response, the flood gates opened, and this was when I came to know exactly with whom I was dealing; that there would be no coming back, not the same way I came, anyway. And situations like those, I knew they tended to hurry.

         I couldn’t blame him though, not really, and once you hear how everything went down you will understand why. Why he did what he did and why I choose to live with it. I mean, the dude had every right in the book to end me, and if the shoe had been on the other foot, well, I can’t say for sure that I would’ve been able to show the same amount of restraint that Bobby did. No, not for sure. I’d like to, but can’t with any degree of certainty. I’m not saying I’m a coward; no, but I am also saying that I’ve never truly been tested. There is a difference. Of this at least I know.

         He was angry. Livid actually, and it seemed to permeate off of him in waves. It was not quite dawn, but the night was leaving just the same. He sat in the chair opposite my bed, the one I used for day old clothes. His legs were crossed and his arms ran the length of each arm of said chair. I could see he took care of himself, that he went to a gym. In the past I have done this myself, enjoying the release I found in lifting the weights. Lately, though? Not so much. Now there is an extra layer to my mid-section. It matches the one above my neck.

         His eyes are what captured me. Sunken and blue, they were rimmed by dark circles. There was a redness there, too, a rawness. I assume this comes from the kind of crying one finds themselves unable to stop. I do not think I am very far off in this assessment. The man looked broken is what I am trying to convey, but he was coiled as well---like I said, I could feel his anger. Looking back, I now realize he was only ever these two things with me---sorrow and rage---and I could complain about that until I was blue in the face, but I don’t think I will, as I deserve everything this man has done to me. However, I will say this: I am sure he is not the first person to eat of those two emotions. I am also sure he will not be the last.

         “I said: Was it worth it?” The man was all business, straight and to the point from beneath the visor of his ball cap. I looked at him; silent, unable to do anything but go over everything I had read about him during my stay in the hospital: Bobby Charles, father of one, husband of almost ten years. Age: forty five; nineteen years my senior. He enjoyed fishing and golf and owned a restaurant which he ran up on Brock. The Pita Pit is what I think it’s called. He was a widower now, of course, and the only reason for that was because of me, yours truly. I’d cost him his son as well. The boy…his name had been Patrick.

         I did not kill these people on purpose, no, but do not doubt that it is my fault just the same.

         I tried to answer him but found myself unable. Pausing, I remember thinking: What did he want from me, anyway? Would his lawyers not be taking me for everything I owned soon enough? Was the cost of me breaking both my legs in the accident not payment enough? Even as I thought it, I regretted it---whole-hearted and immediate. If anything, I have learned a lot about myself because of that day. Chief amongst them being this: I was more selfish than I could have ever imagined. And that denial is very much a form of addiction. Not the big denial, the type which can get you through serious trauma, but the everyday denials we incorporate into life. The ones which let us believe we are good people, if only we choose to believe.

         I cleared my throat, swallowed, and then adjusted the pillow between my back and the headboard as best I could. As they’d been doing for a while, my legs protested this. Bobby and me? We continued to look at each other, to blink and breathe. We listened as well, as the clock above the door frame went tick, tick, tick. Finally, I asked: “Will you kill me?”

         He only shook his head, repeated, “Was it worth it?” And then I realized that his head nod was not an answer to whether or not he was here to kill me. He wanted his question answered is all---didn’t want the jerk in front of him answering it with one of his own. Why would he? This wasn’t about me (well, okay, it was; how could it not be?) but this is not the point I am trying to make. What I am attempting to show you is how narcissistic I was, how self-absorbed and shallow. This is what I want you to know---that it wasn’t until he did what he did that I truly understood what it all was ever supposed to be about. Funny, isn’t it? What it takes to open one’s eyes? No, not funny---sad; pathetic, really.

         Still, the question remained: Was it worth it? Was what worth it? That is what I wanted to say, as I had no idea to what his question referred. I was at least smart enough (and scared enough) to realize that I had to get on with it and finally just ask him what the fuck he meant. The whole thing here, he in the chair, me waking up to him in the chair, it had taken no more than six minutes---seven on the out. I can tell you it did not feel like minutes. No, it felt more like hours.

         “Mr. Charles,” I said. “I am not trying to upset you, but man, I don’t really understand what it is you’re asking me. Clearly I am in no position to assume…” and we were back to regarding each other, he and his eyes simmering, me in my bed wondering if he was asking me if it was killing his son and wife that was worth it? Was this the question he was asking?

         He said: “I was behind you, Randy---on the road when it happened. Did you know that?”

         And all of a sudden I knew; could not not know; envisioned myself driving that day, driving as I always drove, like I was the only one who mattered.

         It happened on Main, a four lane black-top which is one of the busiest in the city. It is also a street where between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., between the first and fifteenth of any given month, cars are allowed to park. The day it all went down? March 8th; a Tuesday. And you can rest assured that it happened well within the aforementioned eight hour window.

         “No.” I said, finally answering his question. I was really answering both his questions, but I am still not sure if he was aware of this or not. Either way, my response had been something just short of a whisper. For the first time since he arrived I found myself unable to hold his gaze as well. Guilt has a way of doing this, I’m finding.

         “If you had made it, you would’ve just carried on. I know this. This is what people like you do; it’s how you’re wired; out for no one but yourself.” The anger remained, but he had control of it, seemed to be almost chewing on the words as he said them to me. In hindsight, he was doing the best that he could. I see that now. Actually, I see a lot of things now. One such gem is this: if I hadn’t killed his wife and child, I would have scoffed at the accusation he presented, if not outright denied it. That was how far gone I was in believing myself a good person. And if that is not as fucked as it gets, I do not know what is.

         But I did kill his wife and I did kill his child.

         I wasn’t going to wait; my time more precious than anyone’s---that is what it came down to.

         I had been passing and speeding. I had been dodging and weaving. Many of us do this, unable to obey the posted limit; always on our way. The morning that it happened, nothing was different. If anything I was probably a little slow to speed up as I went to change lanes that final time. This is what it hinged on, that I tried to cut over when I should have slowed. But if I had slowed, I would then have to wait for an opening and signal my way through. This would not do. I would not wait. After all, it was my world we were living in.

         I cut over, clipped her mini-van, sending them and the van headlong into the teeth of an eighteen wheeler. The big machine ate. The grill, I’m told, coming to hold bone. Myself? I over-corrected the clip and hit a patch of black ice. As you can imagine, coming out of the slide at the speed I was going---let’s just say that the flips I did were far from few.

         “You’re a liar as well as a murderer. You know that?”

         I re-found his gaze, looked up and slowly nodded my response. I was caught, and had been since he got there---denial or no denials.

         “First sensible thing you’ve done since I got here.”

         “If you saw me…,” I said, now curious. “Why haven’t you told the police?”

         “Does it matter?” He spat, and then leaned forward in the chair. “Whatever. You want to know, I’ll tell you: I was waiting for you. Not at first. At first I was in shock. But as the investigation went on, I came to realize what you were up to. Or rather, what you were omitting in your statement. This is when I knew you for a liar. You are a coward, too, Randy.”

         Suddenly his anger abated. There in the chair, his shoulders sank and he began to cry. His eyes looked weary now, and his voice---it lost the grate it bore, the fury. “I never once heard you mention how you were darting in and out of traffic that day. Not once that your speed…that it was well above what it was supposed to be. Sure you said you were going a little over the posted, but nothing like what I saw. You know what I saw? I saw a man who could care less about those around him; a man who at best is a child. You were an accident waiting to happen. And you know what the funny thing is, out of all of this: I thought that very thing as I watched you pass me that morning, not thirty seconds before…”

         His voice had become quiet and, as I said, anger free. He was a different Bobby Charles than the one I had been dealing with. This was the shell of that man, his husk. I was sure the other one still lurked there somewhere, but for the time being he was nowhere to be seen.

         “No,” I said again. “No, Mr. Charles, it wasn’t worth it. I know that now. Actually, it should have been something I knew before what happened, happened; which would have prevented it from happening, now that I think about it. But in regards to the statement I gave to the police…

         “Don’t! Don’t go there.” And like that, his fury was back. Restrained but oh so on fire. “You said what you said: that it wasn’t worth it. Good, it’s what I needed to hear. It makes what comes next much easier. In the meantime, don’t go digging yourself holes you can’t climb out of.”

         “Bobby, please, let me at least explain why---”

         “Do not call me Bobby!”

         “Sorry. I’m sorry. I just…” but my words, they failed me. And I believe it was right about then that everything started to clear for me; this moment when I began to look at life from a whole new angle. I believe this is called a paradigm shift. Is this correct? Whatever you called it---this was when my “rampant” apathy and “masked” sociopathic tendencies found themselves beneath the boot heel of the human condition, quashed forevermore.

         It was the beginning of my change for the better.

         “It doesn’t matter,” he said, his anger dissipating once more. He sighed. “We are where we are; are what we are. The road less travelled. Whatever.” And then he laughed, but there was no humor in it. No, none. “Sometimes I think it was as much my fault as it is yours. I used to have a mantra….a saying I’d whisper to myself whenever I would get to thinking about things, when things like losing my wife and child to inexplicable random events crept into my head. It started when Val and I were dating, from there snowballing to include our son. They never knew I did this, even when the need arose and I found myself in the same room with either of them. I would turn my head, quietly repeat my phrase three times, and that would be it. But I had to mean it---that was the thing, the promise I set for myself. I could never just go through the motions. If I did, it wouldn’t work, and whatever I had tricked myself into believing would fail, ensuring the inexplicable random events which scared the shit out of me could do nothing more than come true; stupid; all of it. But it kept me going, believing. And then you came. Randy McAlister---my Mr. Inexplicable.”

         I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do. Should I comment ran through my head. So did begging for my life. Instead I watched him stand up and take off his ball cap. He looked to the window, ran a hand through what remained of his hair. At this I realized how empty the man was, how much I had emptied him. Turning from the window, he said: “Earlier you asked me if I’d kill you. Honestly, that was what I came here to do. In my head I was going to give you one chance, one question: was it worth it. You answered the question, Randy, but you didn’t answer it correctly. To tell you the truth, I don’t believe you fully comprehend the query. But as we sat here, as we talked, something occurred to me: I’m here for a reason, to give you more time, not take it. You need to know. You need to see.”

         He left the room then, his big work boots heavy on the floor. He wasn’t gone a long time like before, it only felt that way---the minutes like hours. I don’t know for sure, but he might have even done this on purpose---making me wait like he did. Maybe so, maybe no. Either way, the man was certainly entitled. Anyway, it was only a feeling.

         The screen door slammed shut as he came back in. It had been old, that door, and loud, in need of repair since before I inherited the place from my parents. It was as the axe hit the floor with a thud that my balls hardened and my penis shrank. At this time I didn’t know it was the axe from the woodpile out back he had brought back inside with him, remember, only that an object of considerable weight had been grounded to my kitchen floor. He dragged it too, the whole way back. Picture him doing this: the handle, his hand. Now picture red paint, but faded from years of use. The noise it made? It became the stuff of nightmares to me, of can’t believe and this is not happening! It put mice in my chest and ice down my back. And again it seemed as though he was taking his time---making sure I had everything I needed to completely take in the sound which approached me. He probably was doing this, but I’ll never know, not for sure. The old me? The person I used to be? He would say this was exactly what Bobby Charles was doing---the old dog getting himself a bit of an hors d’oeuvre before the main course to come; his big ’ole slice of retribution pie. Oh yes, my old self could see this very well.

         Curious: I didn’t scream. And, looking back, I cannot for the life of me find a reason why this wouldn’t happen. Is it possible to become too scared to scream? I don’t know, but I would probably prove a very good case study.

         So I didn’t scream. Instead, I watched the doorway until he came back into view. As he did, I saw the axe, it trailing behind him like a long and rigid pet. It wasn’t until seeing this image that I realized why the terror inside me had been building. It was the sound, you see, the dragging, scraping sound which accompanied the man’s return. I think deep down I might have known what it was all along. Right here, at this realization, was when my bladder let go.

         “Don’t worry,” he said and came towards me, forward, to the edge of my bed. The axe was up in one hand now, held onto by the neck. He pointed it at me as he talked, little jabbing motions which seemed to punctuate every third word or so. “This is not what I had in mind. No, I brought a gun. One I was going to put in your mouth and make you eat. This will not be happening now.”

         His anger? The stuff he had brought with him? Gone; not an ounce of it in him now. It wasn’t lurking either, as before, when his display of emotions were back and forth, both fast and furious. No, something had happened. He was calm now. Dejected, but calm. Soon I would come to know why, to find that the man had found an escape route---me, of course, the in-house facilitator.

         We looked at the axe, both from different perspectives. His most likely reverence, mine most definitely fear. He hefted the weight in front of me, changed hands then grabbed it by the neck once more. Back to punctuating, he said, “I won’t lie: this won’t be easy on you. Going to hurt like nothing you have ever felt, I’m sure. However, when it’s over, I will leave you a choice. Might not seem fair to you, but you are a murderer, Randy. I don’t want you to ever forget that. This is why it has to be this way; this your daily reminder. Ready?”

         Ready for what?---this is what I wanted to say, what I needed to say. A mewling sound came out of me instead, the back of my skull suddenly trying its very best to push through the headboard it was up against.

         As he raised the axe I raised my arms.

         Down it came, down, and fire erupted in my mind as big black spots popped into my field of vision. This time I did scream, but it sounded far away and high---like a girl’s. He took off his belt next, creating a tourniquet half way down my thigh. Vaguely I remember him asking where I kept my own, or if I even used one. I couldn’t answer, or if I did, I have blocked it out. He must have found one though, as I didn’t bleed out once he went around the bed to finish what he started. What I do remember him saying is this: “You took two from me, now I have taken the same from you.” Then I felt metal in my hand: the gun he placed there. Down in my ear now, he spoke as I writhed in pain and screamed in curses. “I will give you one chance. I will stand and swing one last time. I will aim for your head. Do me this one thing right, Randy: send me home. I miss them. More than I could have ever known. If I do it myself, I chance them again. That is something I cannot do---"

         I shot him right about there, before he stood up, before his final swing. And I emptied the gun, but you already know this part of the story. Do you want to know how his body jerked backward as well? That his arms flew out but his ball cap stayed on, that he was dead before he hit the floor and gone before you opened the door? Isn’t that how the song goes? Doesn’t matter. What does is what he did, what Bobby chose to do---how he opened my eyes. I see this now, as I have been saying---all of it, what life is really all about, this great and secret show. I think I’m going to try and find God now. I think I need to. Not that I have been backtracking, but these last few months, well…they have been stressful. With the facility change as well as the new medication you have me on.

         All I want to do is help. That’s all I need. I have to make up for everything that was before, everything I was before---this is what Bobby gave me, what he cut from me in pounds; that to sacrifice is selfless, and more than holding doors. We are here for a reason. It has been glimpsed, now it must be shown. Bobby, he put me on the path---you must let me ride.

Beau Johnson lives in Canada with his wife and three boys. He has been published before, in the darker, seedier parts of town. However, it is on Tuesdays that he and his family travel back through time in an attempt to correct that which once went wrong.







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