"The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it."
--Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Charley Bob Brewer was 30 years old when they found him in his house on the night of October 14th, a fatal gunshot wound peeking out from his chest. It's hard to believe I had just seen him, and even harder to admit what I was thinking about him the day he died. I feel bad because I was thinking that though he appeared to be a nice guy, I couldn't find it in myself to like him very much.
See, Charley was hired to fix my mother's ailing computer, and it became clear early on that he didn't really know what he was doing and my mother's bill was growing in direct proportion to his ignorance. He came to my mother's house three times and each time he suggested she replace another component. After the first time, I told her that I didn't think he knew what he was doing. She seemed to agree, but she felt it would be counterproductive to go to someone else after he had already done so much work on the computer. So the process dragged on unnecessarily for weeks. Classic inertia.
As much as I'm inclined to dislike people who try to take advantage of my mother, I think what troubled me the most was the two times he brought his family along when he came to do repairs. The first time, I was at the house alone and he was supposed to install a piece of hardware and be on his way. Several hiccups and nearly an hour later things were not working, and he decided to take the computer home to work on it. It wasn't until I walked him to the door that I saw his wife and kids sitting in the car, parked in the driveway beneath the baking sun. I asked him why he didn't tell me they were there, as they were more than welcome to come inside. He just laughed, said they didn't mind, got in the car and drove off.
It took an inordinately long time, but he finally returned my mother's computer. This time both of my parents were home, so I let them field his never-ending flow of affable chatter. On an impulse I looked out the window to see if the car was occupied, but I didn't have a clear view. Twenty minutes later, I heard a car door open and I looked out again. There were his wife and two kids, opening the car doors to get some fresh air. He might have been unclear on the etiquette of bringing his family on house calls the first time, but after an explicit invitation the second time seemed intentional. Charley was still happily chatting away and didn't look to be in any rush, so I discreetly motioned my father over and explained the situation. He and my mother gently sidestepped Charley's objections and invited them inside to relax on the couch and enjoy some refreshments.
It was an odd experience. I mostly stayed in my room, but there was definitely some unease in the air. The kids were young, 3 and 6, and they quickly warmed up to the new environment and the strangers who inhabited it. Indeed, the 6 year old appeared to have inherited his daddy's gift of gab. Charley's wife, Cheryl, began to smile shyly as she saw her kids having fun, but there was an electric thread of tension between her and Charley. He was still laughing and smiling, but it felt a bit forced, and she wouldn't meet his eyes. Chalking it up to some people just being awkward around strangers, I mostly stayed to myself until Charley finished working on the computer and we all said goodbye. That was October 13th.
The police are reporting that Cheryl called 911 to say she had shot her husband. Further details have not been made public as of yet, but it is my understanding that no charges have been filed. At the very least I can say that as of October 27th she was not incarcerated. That was the day she came to my parents' house for the last time.
At the time it only seemed moderately strange. My mother answered the doorbell and found Cheryl on the stoop with a package for her. My mother did not recognize her until Cheryl said that the package contained my mother's old internet adapter. I thought it was strange that she brought the adapter alone, but I didn't give it much thought since every interaction with them had been strange.
But tonight we found out that Charley was shot, and my mother reflected that she'd also found the interaction to be strange. Not because Cheryl was alone, but because she had gently held onto my mother's hand for a moment when she handed her the package. My mother told her to tell the boys hello, but Cheryl didn't respond. It's eerie to learn now that she brought the forgotten internet adapter without her husband because he was already dead, perhaps by her hand. When Cheryl left that last time, we had assumed that we would never hear about Charley and Cheryl Brewer again.
It's amazing how the mind molds our memories. I read somewhere that the memories we hold onto most, the ones we most often rehearse, are just that – rehearsed. They shift subtly with each retelling, fitting more closely to the larger framework we are using to make sense of the world and our lives. We add embellishments and change time frames, all toward the end of shaping a memory that does not hinder the flow of how we narrate ourselves. It took me years to realize that my memory of seeing the Space Shuttle Challenger explode at liftoff in 1986 was erroneously staged in the house which we didn’t move into until 1988. A counselor friend of mine told me this might be a subconscious way of staging a traumatic event in a safer environment, which makes me wonder how many other memories have received such treatment. It seems that the things I can consistently remember are often shockingly inconsistent with reality.
Who can say if my mother really noticed those details when Cheryl came to our door? But after her recollection a pensive silence fell around the dinner table. I was thinking about my various interactions with them, wondering if there was some way I could have known, could have prevented what would happen. Would one extra smile at Cheryl and the kids have made the difference? Was the electric thread of tension between them exacerbated by my interfering with their house call arrangement? Did it pull and pull and pull until everything unraveled in a flash of gunpowder and blood?
Speculation abounds, not just in my head but on the streets. Small communities are genetically predisposed to parse through the gossip and take sides, and right now there are several factions. One says that Charley was a saint, but Cheryl struggled to kick a drug habit. She is therefore obviously guilty of murder and ought to be locked up. Another muses that Charley was abusive behind closed doors and Cheryl shot him in self-defense. Why else wouldn't she be in custody? Yet another posits that it might have been an accident, being hunting season and all. Finally, some folks whisper that Charley had recently experienced some significant educational and occupational setbacks, and the pressure might have been too much for him to handle. All of these sides only show that speculation often conforms itself to our preferred narratives, according it a tenuous tie to reality similar in nature to that of memory.
However much we scour our memories for hints, however many theories run through the gossip mill, the reality is that Charley is dead. His grandparents have outlived him. His young sons are partial orphans, his wife a widow. Reality as they knew it has changed irreversibly, and it is heartbreaking. Denied the power to change reality, we can only speculate and tinker with our memories until we tell a story that lulls us to sleep, dreaming that we've made sense of things at last.