national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

24 Trials

Warner James Wood  • 
Harvard University

The incident reported below took place on July 1, 2011, at 11:41 p.m. in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Jim Callihan has been indicted with charges of vehicular homicide, among others. His trial is set for spring 2014. Names have been changed out of sensitivity to the family.

Summer in Blue Ridge is a time of coming, not going. It is a time when all is provided. The local grocer sells produce only in weeks of drought, and the pesticides used are from spray bottles, intended for skin. Once the evening air has cooled, dinners are taken outside, where dishes are left ’til morning, licked clean by our nightly visitors. Backyards end at the man-made lake, which was filled years ago in the shape of a spider. This way, it was thought, everyone could live by the water.

On warm nights, Jim and I swim in the dark, naked and male, loving the feel so much it leaves us hollow, floating on our backs so the fish don’t nip at our peckers. We look up, out of courtesy, talk girls, belch. Back on the shore, we shake our clothes of ants, or worse than ants, before re-dressing. The morning sun finds our backs marked by the harmless teeth of fish.

“Floridiots” come in droves to the town of Blue Ridge, keeping locals off the roadways after five on Fridays. These tourists trade in their beaches and Surf-N-Turf for our mountains and grits. Downtown storeowners, who were once tourists themselves, lather on our accent and sell things none of us locals will touch for prices we can’t afford.

Downtown is a five-minute walk from our side of the lake. This is a fact that realtors selling summer cabins remember, but it doesn’t stop us from driving to church on Sunday mornings. What stops us, usually, is the lack of parking spots. This Sunday, we are running late because my mother can find nothing to wear. We decide to fight it out, loading into the family truck.

Our neighbor’s truck is parked in their driveway when ours pulls out. This is the second week, but everyone understands. No one doesn’t know. Their pew will be left empty, in case they decide to show, and another family will take up the far half so that it will not seem obvious if they sit this one out.

The congregation, with their shined shoes and combed, gray hair, knows how to deal with those who are dealing. They understand what the newspaper left out—that it has been a rough ten days for the Callihan family.

The tendency is to say: “You should see the other family.”

In Blue Ridge, the church is beside the courthouse, and at the back of the courthouse is the jail. This is where I go when I break for the bathroom as the preacher fields prayer requests.

The jail is half full. Its occupants include two DUIs, one misdemeanor for marijuana, and a man being held for the things he did to his daughter.

And now, I guess, my neighbor, Jim Callihan.

Growing up, Jim Callihan was better than I was at everything that mattered. At that point, this was horses, girls, and age. He thought we stopped riding horses together because I was jealous, because he was too fast. The truth is, there came a point when I no longer wanted to wash naked in the creek with someone who had four years of puberty on me. And yes, he was fast.

Summers of my childhood were spent playing John Wayne in the woods behind my house. Or Jim played John Wayne. I played Clint. We liked cowboys, the sweat on horseflesh, the flash of a spur. The others—the tourists in town—liked the idea of cowboys. They wanted to be John Wayne for the weekend.

Jim wanted it for life.

For life, I should mention, is not a term we like. It is something we in Blue Ridge do not wish on Jim Callihan.

With a television, toilet, and twin bed all on twenty-four square feet of concrete, the jail cells in Blue Ridge leave little to the imagination. It is not the place I want to be on a Sunday morning, but I decide to play it light.

“This is a good look for you, Mr. Wayne,” I tell my friend, keeping my eyes on anything but the patchwork of stitching across his nose. I slide open the unlocked cell door and sit beside him on the bed. “Two good Christian boys on a Sabbath morn.”

Friendships of a certain length are bound to run through phases. The best was my childhood friend’s cowboy phase. The worst was his faggot phase, which followed shortly after I was no longer included in his cowboy tales of cigars and tits. The brunt of this phase was directed at me, the child faggot, though I’m sure there were others—at school, in locker rooms, surrounded by cowboys.

These phases you forget when your friends are in need. When your childhood buddy is in jail for killing one person and paralyzing another, you forget the time he pinned you to the ground in his backyard because one of his new friends called the game “Smear the Queer.”

My mother was upset when she heard the news—what had happened to the neighbor’s son. My father was practical. “Give it a couple days,” he said, folding the newspaper and dropping it on the table. “All this will blow over.”

“And when it does,” said my mother, “that family is in for a long vacation.”

I picked up the newspaper and gave the story a read.

“Look at what happened to the last family who said that,” I said.

The store owners of downtown Blue Ridge are not kind to the Callihan family. After what happened, they are cold, petty. They even become quiet around the Callihan’s acquaintances.

I do not care for these people. They do not make me feel guilty. The most pressing concern they seem to have about Jim Callihan ramming his truck into an Orlando license plate is the effect it could have on souvenir sales.

Families who vacation in Blue Ridge expect to show their children some semblance of a culture different from their own: to let them experience a life less complex and a people less sophisticated. They come hoping to uncover the history of the first southern settlers, a history borne in gold-rush towns, tucked under lines of mountains, in bootlegging, butter, and incest.

In other words, these people come for the lawlessness.

“What the hell did they expect?” asked Jim Callihan, having sobered up for a couple of hours in jail.

The wreck was the biggest news all year, and the offender was the doctor’s son. It made sense, then, that the better of the two town lawyers took the case, free of charge.

“Maybe the whole state of Florida will hear about this,” said the lawyer to Mr. Callihan. “Teach ’em a thing or two about coming up here.”

The joke fell flat. He recanted: “I’m going to hell for that one, aren’t I, Doc?”

Laughing, again: “Aren’t I going to hell for that one?”

When the newspaper reported the car accident in Blue Ridge, it told how the children affected were ages three and five, and how it was the five-year-old who was dealt death upon impact; the three-year-old, immobility.

We learned the rest through gossip.

We learned, for example, that the person responsible for the crash was a teenager seen drinking at a bonfire that evening—a bonfire from which I, too, drove home. We heard that he was driving 30 above the speed limit, and that he ran a red light a few miles back, a red light where a police car was stationed. The officer, it was suggested, must have seen who was in the red truck and decided not to bother turning a siren, because the driver was a good kid from a good family, and because all boys deserve a little fun now and then.

In a town where so much of our identity depends on locals versus tourists, public opinion is easy to gauge. In the case of the fatal car crash involving a local teen, the most important evidence for many in the town was the other car’s license plate. After being un-crumpled and spread flat across the D.A.’s table, the town on the license plate was a town not here.

The Orlando family involved in the wreck requests the trial be moved elsewhere. They refuse to return to this town.

The lawyer representing the local teen will not allow it. He says, “Jury of your peers.”

Old teachers bring food to the Callihan house as though to a funeral. Mrs. Callihan, with a safety pin holding taut the waistline of her skirt, listens as these women explain how her role is crucial. What a shame, they say, how tragedy can tear apart a perfect family.

“We are all mothers,” they say.

They talk with Mrs. Callihan about the good times—how they knew her son. If they had asked me, if Mrs. Callihan had needed my stories as she did theirs, what would I have said?

Perhaps I would have talked about feeding fireflies to a found bullfrog, about watching its belly pulse light and dark, light and dark, beneath the cover of my hands, before her son appeared with the three-pronged gig. Or about the time he stood behind me on the bank of the rock quarry and promised, “You jump, I jump”—the day I tasted the lime of the water, turned red, as he ran to the road for help.

Jim Callihan rode his horse hard, with spurs. When he had the choice to ride Dollar at full gallop or wait behind for me and Ranger, he chose to gallop. I could tell what he was thinking by his speed around the trail.

I once rode up on Jim washing blood from a gash in his leg. All he said, the water separating at his knee and rolling downstream, was, “Dollar finally grew a pair.”

Dollar was taking water beside him on the bank, mud splattered along her underside, more his equal in that moment than I would ever be.

“John Wayne never stayed in jail,” said my friend, Jim, the third time I visited.

He had been in jail for two weeks and was growing impatient.

“John Wayne killed Indians,” I said, checking for remorse in his glare.

In the weeks following the accident, the defendant’s family receives photographs of the two children, the victims of the crash. The boy, now paralyzed below the neck, is pictured swinging from monkey bars. The girl, now dead, is with her mother, kneeling in a bed of flowers.

The defendant’s mother had been reading self-help books that instructed her to save reminders like these, to place them conspicuously. This way, the books explained, they can come to terms with reality.

It makes me wonder what the people who write these books have been through. What have their sons done?

I have heard that people behind bars often ask why their friends haven’t visited. My friend, Jim, asks what people are saying. It’s the first real conversation I’ve had with him since the accident. I expect him to open up, to confide in me the feelings he had been suppressing—the guilt, the sadness of it all.

“It could have been me,” he says instead. “I could have died in that crash.”

He asks what I thought, when I first heard the news. I tell him that I was worried, that we all were. What I don’t tell him is that the first thought that crossed my mind was: Good. Now he’s the fuck-up.

The town doctor is the father of my friend. He tells me a story about a woman he treats. This woman has been bitten three times by brown recluse spiders. After the second bite, she brought friends over to search the house. These friends opened her crawl space to find it laden with pearl-shaped eggs. There were so many spiders, said the friends, it looked as though the wooden beams were moving.

This woman called for an exterminator. When the poison had settled and she was allowed to move back in, she again checked her crawl space. What she found was not what she expected. Three hundred dollars worth of extermination had killed every other bug in the house, leaving carcasses scattered across the floor of the crawl space, dragged home by the spiders. She had provided them a feast.

Autumn in Blue Ridge is for apple festivals. For final bonfires burned over raked leaves, for people in flannel shirts, whose truck windows remain closed.

It’s for forgiving summer’s transgressions.

Or forgetting.

Even now, I can’t remember. Those nights of early summer, the nights spent in lake water—did the fish bite because they were hungry, or because we were where we shouldn’t have been? Were their intentions as harmless as we thought, or were their teeth marks evidence of our intrusion?

The Associated Press picked up the story: the first time Blue Ridge has ever made the news. The story of Jim Callihan ran in hundreds of newspapers across the nation. In each article, pictures of the town were included—of the lake, the mountain foliage.

This fall was the busiest the town has ever seen. We had provided them a feast.