by Lewis J. Beilman III
Nothing I could do about it. I was driving west on Tamiami Trail. All of a sudden, out of the darkness, headlights bore through the night and blinded me. I braced for the collision. Instead, the oncoming car jerked, its lights swerving north into the canal.
Days later, I told myself that I glimpsed her face before the car turned. I saw her brown hair, cut in a bob. I watched her eyes pop open, her hands choke the steering wheel, her mouth draw wide with shock. She seemed to know what was coming.
But maybe I didn’t really see it that way. It happened so fast and—like I said—the headlights blinded me. Also, a picture ran in The Herald two days after the accident. It showed the girl, her hair cut in a bob, smiling in a high-school photograph. I stared at the picture, examining the contours of her face. Maybe that’s how I thought I knew what she looked like that night.
One thing’s for sure, though. I pulled over, turned around, and drove back just in time to see her taillights turn the water red before they sank into the murk. I stopped my car where she went into the canal and waited to see if she might come up. Bubbles broke the water’s surface. I opened my door and swung my legs out. Hoisting my body through the doorframe, I steadied myself. I pulled my crutches from the backseat, left the car running, and dragged myself to the canal bank. The bank was too steep for me to climb down—so I stood there watching, my crutches shifting in the gravel.
I’m not hero material. My legs locked in place when I was young. The doctor told me I had polio. So there I was—in the prime of my life—unable to walk without crutches, my legs useless. Still, I made the best of it. Got married—twice. Even had a daughter. Taught her to play ball. When she was little, that girl would run to me, pull my beard, and tug my cap. I’d sit in my lawn chair and throw the ball to her for hours. I can still smell the leather from her glove.
I taught myself to drive again, too. I had a friend of mine rig my car with hand controls so I could work the pedals—the same set-up FDR’s car had. It took a little practice at first, but I learned quickly enough to make a liquor run or hit the Farm Stores. Once I got used to it, I would just head out and drive. And, that’s what I was doing that night—just driving.
I headed out on Calle Ocho until I hit the Indian land. My old lady and I had had a fight earlier, and I wanted to clear my head. Back then, you could drive all night and rarely see another soul. There were gators, egrets, and other critters—but, as for people, hardly any. The sky, too, was empty. That blackness, pricked with a thousand white pinholes, got my mind wandering. I drifted slowly with the night, and my car drifted slowly too. Then those lights came at me, yanking me away from distant dreams.
When that girl didn’t come up for breath, I knew I had to tell the cops. I figured the girl had family who would want to know where she was. Otherwise, she would probably get chalked up as another runaway. She could have sat rotting in that car for years until someone dragging the canal found it and pulled its rusty frame up the bank. I told myself I would want to know if something like that happened to my daughter.
I hobbled back to my car and threw the crutches inside. I heard a clank in the backseat and remembered I had stashed my bottle there. That sound settled it. I had only had a couple of drinks, but I couldn’t meet the police with whiskey on my breath. Not about this. So I changed my plans.
A few miles east was a restaurant called The Pit. During the day it was a barbeque and beer joint. I could call from the payphone there without anyone seeing me. I parked away from the road and swung myself over to the phone booth, staying out of sight. When I called, I didn’t tell the cops who I was. To them, I might as well have been the Grim Reaper. Afterward, I headed home.
I got there a little before four in the morning. Jan, my second wife, was waiting in the kitchen for me. She had had a few herself. Nothing unusual. A drunk usually hunkers down with another drunk. She staggered toward me from the kitchen table. She got real close—close enough to where I could smell the booze on her breath—before she fell back and braced herself against one of the yellow Formica counters.
Jan railed at me about some piece-of-tail named Mary, a secretary at the accounting office where I worked. She thought I had been out chasing her that night. But I wasn’t interested in Mary. Still, Jan couldn’t get that secretary out of her head. For whatever reason, she thought we had something going on. What Jan didn’t know was that I had been fooling around with her busty friend, Suzie. For someone who couldn’t walk, I got around back then.
That night, Jan turned away and, dropping her elbows on the counter, let her head sink into her hands. She cried like she always did when she had too many. I thought maybe I would tell her what happened that night, but I couldn’t. If she remembered it the next day, she would have got on the horn with Suzie and blabbed about her stone-cold-killer husband.
No, I couldn’t tell Jan something like that. She wouldn’t have understood. Instead, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and dragged myself to the living room. I set my crutches on the floor beside the coffee table. She stopped bawling after a few minutes. She slammed a bunch of cabinets to make like she was putting dishes away, but she went to bed without hassling me any more. I downed my beer and fell asleep on the couch.
I slept well that night. In fact, I dreamed the most pleasant dream—one of the few dreams in my life that made me wish I had never woken up, that I could stay in the dream forever until the dream became what I was or I became the dream.
I dreamed I was alone in a Boston Whaler, out on Florida Bay, with a bucket of bait and a rod. The morning sun sparkled on the water, and my thermos of coffee steamed where it rested. While I fished, a ray skated beneath my boat, and the sunlight shifted the ripples in the water from pink to gold and back again to pink. I looked up to see an osprey skimming over the sea. I was standing at the prow of the boat, standing on my own strong legs.
Sometimes I wonder why the guilt did not consume me then. Should I have spent that night tossing and turning in a fitful sleep? Sure, I felt bad for the girl, but some people have bad luck—and it was bad luck for her to be out on the Trail that morning when I crossed the center line. Nothing I could do about it. She would have been dead regardless—even if I had marched into her funeral, dropped to my knees, and begged her family for forgiveness.
Still, when I woke that morning from my dream, I knew something had to change. I heard Jan in the kitchen, mumbling God-knows-what. For sure, her words included my name followed by a string of expletives. I knew I couldn’t make it with her anymore. No rising sun would make the sea dance in vestments of gold and pink for us.
I let my head settle for a moment. I groped the floor for my crutches, lifted myself up, and waited for the daggers behind my eyeballs to stop their stabbing. Once they subsided, I hobbled down the hallway to my daughter’s room. When I got there, she was still asleep. One of her golden ponytails hung over her eyes. Her skin was brown from playing in the summer sun. I lowered my knees to the floor and tried to wake her. She yawned, but didn’t stir. I kissed her forehead and pulled her blanket over her shoulders. After that kiss, I swung myself out of her life.
Outside, the sun blazed against my face. Squinting, I made my way to the car. The sweat rolled down my face, underarms, and back. The door handle burned my hand. The air in the car raged like a furnace. I tossed my crutches in the back, gripped the roof of the car, and lowered myself into the driver’s seat. The vinyl stuck to my backside through my pants.
There I was. No clothes other than those I was wearing. No money other than what was in my wallet. And no home other than that beat-up Ford. I reached into the backseat, grabbed the bottle I had stashed there, and took a swig. The whiskey tasted warm, but good. I turned the ignition and left my life in the rearview mirror.
For a few weeks, I crashed at friends’ places. I even stayed with Suzie for a while. To get even with me, Jan said I couldn’t see our daughter. But that didn’t matter too much then. All I cared about was having a little cash, a pint of whiskey, and a couch to sleep on. The more I drank, though, the faster the money dried up—and the scarcer the couches became.
Eventually, the headaches made it harder to wake, and I started missing days at work. On the days I made it in, I would steady my nerves with the hair-of-the-dog. People started talking. My boss offered to help, but I didn’t want his charity. One day, he called me into his office to give me the axe. He told me to get my life in order. I grabbed what little I owned from my desk and went to my friend Jimmy’s.
Jimmy told me to get sober or find another place to stay. I couldn’t stay anywhere else because no one would take me. Desperate, I started going to AA meetings. I found they weren’t too bad. Eventually, people at the meetings learned I was an accountant and asked me for help with their taxes and such. Then, one day, Bob—who led a group meeting—said he needed help with his construction company’s books.
Since there was a building boom in those days, Bob had plenty of work. After a while, he hired me full-time. I moved into my own apartment and started talking to my daughter again. As business continued to thrive, I bought a small house Bob’s company had built in Belen. My daughter came by every other weekend, and I made a lady friend. I even bought myself a Boston Whaler.
Throughout the years, I would drive up and down the Trail and never think twice about the past. But one evening last summer, I was cruising west in my new Mustang convertible. I buzzed past the Miccosukee Hotel and Casino. The wind ran through my hair, and something in the air reminded me of that night long ago.
The car drifted as my mind wandered. I heard someone lay on her horn. I looked up. A woman in a red sports car barreled toward me. I brought my car back into my lane. The woman gave me the finger as she drove by. I realized I was near the site where that young girl had gone into the water. Thoughts of that girl’s struggle flooded over me.
I pulled off the road near a flood control structure and parked by a boat ramp. I needed to steady myself. After grabbing my crutches, I hoisted myself onto the gravel. I stared across the canal over the waves of sawgrass. The mosquitoes came at me. I swatted at them—but they kept coming. I wondered why I had stopped in the first place. As I pivoted back toward the car, I heard a splashing sound behind me.
I turned around again and looked at the water. About five feet from the bank, an anhinga thrashed to-and-fro, as if it were drowning. Screwing up my eyes to get a better view, I noticed the bird had its neck and a leg stuck in separate rings of an empty six-pack holder. I struggled one crutch at a time to descend the canal bank. My body bobbed and canted, but somehow I managed to reach the water’s edge.
The bird fought to stay above water. It rolled over and over, letting loose low-pitched rattles when its beak broke the surface. I lowered myself to the ground, turned onto my stomach, and stretched my arm as far as I could. Holding one of my crutches at length, I tried to pull the bird ashore. The bird continued to loll, its black iridescent neck glistening in the sunlight.
At one point, I thought I had hooked the bird with my crutch. Instead, the anhinga listed, its legs lifting skyward. Leaving behind a trail of bubbles, it sank into the murk. I turned over again and sat on the bank. Staring into the black depths of the water, I let my head fall into my hands. I wept for the first time in years, the sounds of the cars on the Trail echoing in the distance.
Lewis J. Beilman III lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his family and two cats. He writes short stories in his spare time. His novelette, Gina and the Dolphin, will appear in the Garden of the Goddesses anthology in May. Other stories of his have appeared in Cactus Heart Press, Balloons Literary Journal, Reed Magazine, The Middle Gray, Blood Lotus, Gravel Magazine, Straylight Online, Red Fez, and Larks Fiction Magazine. In 2009, he won first prize in the Fred R. Shaw Poetry Contest.