By John F.D. Taff
Wilson Burnett stares up at the plain, white fluorescent lights of the Tyler County Courthouse in Gethsemane and thinks that he is in a sort of Purgatory. The lazy, milky white light and the low, almost palpable hum of the fluorescent tubes are soothing, soothing to Wilson as so many hard words are being thrown at him.
That is the hardest of them all, and each time it is uttered in that plain, white room with the plain, white lights, Wilson flinches just a bit. Each time, his eyes rise to the ceiling, and he loses himself in their Purgatory.
It’s been like this for two weeks now. His trial has riveted the people of Gethsemane. Two men, good friends, the best of friends. A bar room fight one rainy evening, erupting out of some forgettable argument. Both drunk as frat boys though Wilson, at 22 years old, had never even contemplated college, and Luke had dropped out of high school.
Luke was taller and built more solidly than Wilson’s whip-thin, six-foot, 185-pound frame, and Luke had drank more. So, Wilson’s blows in the fight fell on dense packs of alcohol-soaked muscle that not only absorbed them but diluted any pain they might have caused.
Wilson, though, felt every punch from the bigger man, every blow that sent him to the rain-soaked ground. They caused pain. They left marks. Some drew blood.
The fight, egged on by friends of both sides, ended quickly, with Luke delivering the final roundhouse that actually lifted Wilson off his feet and threw him pinwheeling backward to splash into the gray, watery gravel of the parking lot.
That much, everyone attested to.
What happened next was the stuff in debate, the dross of the trial.
Wilson had staggered off, presumably to nurse his wounds as much as his wounded pride, and Luke returned inside the dilapidated bar near the railroad tracks with friends and onlookers.
They found him the next morning, Luke that is, lying parallel to the railroad tracks, with a single .22 caliber bullet that had penetrated his forehead and traveled all the way to the back of his skull. Though it did not have the power to exit, its ricochet scrambled enough of Luke’s brains to kill him.
No one had seen or heard the shot. Maybe it was the thunder and lightning on the stormy night. Maybe it was a passing train that drowned out the sound. Or maybe it was the fact that everyone inside the bar was well past stinking drunk. Whatever the reason, though, everyone did remember the fight earlier that evening between Luke and Wilson.
Wilson was charged in the murder just hours after Luke’s body was found, having been wrestled from his bed in his underwear and handcuffed still blinking away his last dream of the dawn. As the Gethsemane police led him from his home out into the bright light of day, Wilson had tried to raise his hands to shield his sleep-filled eyes from the sun, but they were handcuffed behind his back.
He remembers being led from the house in nothing but a T-shirt and his pajama pants, blinking at the sun-drenched scenery outside as if it were an overexposed photo.
He remembers thinking that this light is preparing him for something, erasing the details of one part of his life and exposing the details of the next.
He remembers this as he stares into the lights on the ceiling of the Tyler County Courthouse and hears the words of the endless procession of witnesses, police officers and so-called experts.
He thinks about it as he lies in his hard, single bunk in one of the six holding cells in the County Jail, housed in the same building as the court.
He wonders about it as he hunches over his meals, taken in a small cafeteria at the rear of the old courthouse. He is chained by his ankles to the metal table, and he spoons colorless, sometimes even odorless food into his mouth.
The light, he realizes, looking up occasionally at the cafeteria’s yellowed lights. The light is leeching the color from this life, the sensory information he usually receives in this life.
And it is preparing him for new colors, new senses.
It would only be a matter of time…
So, he stands here today, on slightly wavering legs, stands as his court-appointed attorney, not much older than him, puts his hand onto the sleeve of Wilson’s orange Tyler County Jail overalls.
“Get up,” he tells him, and Wilson lowers his eyes from the lights and sees his attorney as a dark, featureless blob with an erratic aura of light coming from behind him.
Wilson blinks, stands, and hears more words, but they don’t register all that much.
He senses the change is near, and he is lost in anticipation of it.
Sounds ignite within the courtroom.
Someone slaps him on the back, and he realizes it is the young attorney, grinning apishly.
“Not guilty!” he shouts, then makes to awkwardly hug Wilson, who awkwardly returns the embrace.
“Not guilty?” Wilson replies, scanning the room. But his eyes jump and dance from staring at the lights, and he sees bright dots and squiggles that swim before him. The faces he sees seem as if they are painted onto balloons. They bob and drift on turbulent, conflicting air currents.
He is swept along by these currents, and he suddenly has a thought that bursts inside him as if one of the lights he’d been staring at had found its way inside his body and had snapped on at that moment.
Forgetting all of this, all of his life before this, everything that led to this.
That’s what the lights had been preparing him for.
That’s what Purgatory is.
From this day forward, his life would be new, as new as if he had just been born.
So, Wilson Burnett leaves the courthouse that afternoon, after signing papers and receiving copies of papers and taking a large plastic pouch filled with his personal effects. He is greeted at the entrance to the courthouse by his sister, who embraces him tearfully and drives him back to her house for a celebratory lunch with the rest of his family.
No one speaks of the trial or of Luke Harris or of murder, and all of it slips further and further away from Wilson’s mind, effaced by the light.
Wilson hums with the change, hums like the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of the court room had hummed. He seems possessed of some new energy, new spirit, and it is apparent to everyone.
He doesn’t seem like the old Wilson Burnett, because he isn’t the old Wilson Burnett. He has forgotten his old self and much of his old likes and dislikes, his dreams and fears, his attributes and his drawbacks.
He doesn’t simply forget the murder.
He forgets he is capable of murder.
Within a week of the end of his trial, he has enrolled in college. He takes fours years and graduates with a business degree, to the profound delight of his mostly rural and under-educated family. He takes a management job at the local concrete plant and excels at it.
Within two years of his graduation, he marries a girl from Gethsemane, a girl a few years younger than him who might not have even given the time of day to the old Wilson. They settle down in a nice, new home on the outskirts of Gethsemane, and instantly form a family.
Never once in those years does Wilson think about Luke Harris, think about murder, think about his trial or even the lights of the Tyler County Courthouse.
Wilson and his wife, Jolene, have four children—Jake, Gayle, Peter and Marianne. Each child grows with no problems or difficulties, and, indeed, Wilson’s life is seemingly without setbacks of any kind. Jolene ages gracefully. He is promoted first to assistant manager, then later, to general manager. They move into a larger, more luxurious home.
His hair recedes, his belly grows. His children grow, too, go away to college, graduate, take up jobs and lives of their own. When Wilson turns 54, his daughter, Gayle, presents him with his first grandchild.
Unaware, for how could she be, she names him Luke.
Outwardly, this has no affect on Wilson at all. It could not have. The forgetting has erased all memory of Luke and his murder.
Inside, though, it is as if that light that had entered him so long ago, that had presaged his change and then actually ushered it into being, has been snapped off.
When the baby was only a few days old, it returns to Wilson in a torrent.
He remembers it all and knows that his life between then and now, the life he had been ushered through Purgatory to receive, is a lie.
He is a murderer.
Sometime during his grandchild’s first week of life, Wilson stops at a pawn shop near the concrete plant and buys a gun.
Sometime after that, his life returns to where he had left it in the lights of the Tyler County Courthouse.