Feel free to critique this rough draft
Florida is pretty this time of year. Not too hot, not too cold, and the biting bugs are at their tamest. I finally broke down and took Doctor Vergaard’s advice. I’m here. Ready to paint. Let’s see if my shrink has any shitting idea what he’s talking about. I’m here for the week. This part of the Okefenokee is pretty empty. I haven’t seen anyone since I turned off the state road onto this old single lane dirt one. I hear lots of sounds, but none of them are being made by humans. Doc told me that the sunsets this time of year are spectacular. I can’t wait to see that for myself. Maybe being in this place will bring me back to life.
My name is Caleb Marks. I’m 54 years old, and I was an average middle class American until this year. On the first damn day of the year of our Lord twenty-ought one one, an asshole drunk driver killed my wife and baby girl. Rebecca and Ava.
I was working. Construction is like that. You’re at the job site all hours. I used to be a project manager, and one of the subs, the electrical contractor, put in the wrong light fixtures. Fuck me. The usual story, someone not paying attention.
“Sorry honey,” I said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” I give them both a kiss, like always, and head to the site. Rebecca texts me a few hours later to tell me she needs a couple things from the grocery store. Later, I learn she had been planning to make me Boom Boom meatballs. My favorite meal.
Dwayne Johnson, an unemployed sheetrock hanger, and a guy I’d seen around a couple of my job sites in years past, was going down the road past the Kroger when they were turning out.
Dwayne has been drinking, as usual. At 6:32, he blows through a red light in his Ford F150 and hits the front driver’s side of Becca’s Lexus IS250 going 67 miles an hour. The speed limit on the stretch of road where this happened, at the intersections of Beecher and Broad, is 35 miles an hour. Becca dies instantly, so I’m told. His engine block replaces the space where her body is supposed to be safe and sound in its steel and glass bubble, and causes massive trauma to her entire body. It’s going to be a closed casket for her. Ava hangs on for seven days in the ICU. At one point, the doctors thought she was going to make it. She opened her eyes and told me she loved me, asked where Mommy was, and then went back to sleep. They eventually let me sit in there with her. When it became clear she wasn’t coming back, they gave me time to say goodbye.
I talked to her for a whole day. Told her how much we both love her, and how Daddy is going to make everything right. I hate lying. I hate it more than anything. Except maybe than my family dying.
I didn’t cry. I’m not that kind of man. Instead, I had a quiet nervous breakdown. It started a few days after the funeral. The boss told me to take some time off, and I did. I drank some whiskey and tried to make sense of what happened. I failed on that score. Those few days were filled with dreams. Terrible, clearly focused, horribly vivid dreams. I was in the movie Groundhog Day, except reimagined as a shit show redneck numbly killing my family. Over and over, I watched Dwayne’s blue eyes look down into the passenger side compartment, to the floor where his remaining Budweisers sat in a tightly noosed grouping, held together by a white plastic hangman’s concoction. First Dwayne burps loudly. Then he farts. It’s a real ripper, one of the ones where you lift one leg to let it out. He sighs contentedly over the country song playing too loud out of the shitty base model factory radio. The speakers are humming with distortion. Dwayne peeks at his treasure trove again, then leans down to grab another one. That’s when he blows through the red light and kills my family.
Dwayne Johnson appears in court two weeks later for a hearing. I’m there. I want to kill him. I’ve been dreaming about that too. They have metal detectors at the doors, or I would have brought my .45, and that would be it for good ‘ole beer lovin’ Dwayne.
I sat through the whole trial, silently squeezing my right hand, feeling the trigger pull and then release. Daydreaming something good. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but I want to steal it for myself.
Judge Connor, that cowardly bastard, sentences the man who murdered my family to three years in the lockup and five years of supervised parole. For killing two innocents.
I felt numb when the words came out of the fat fool’s mouth. I didn’t think, I just acted. I even managed to get my hands around Dwayne’s neck. I’m six five, and he’s about a foot shorter. The deputies didn’t give me enough time. He was coughing by the time they pulled me off of him. His face was red, and his eyes were bulging. Then they pulled him up and got him out of there. Got that killer into a holding room where I couldn’t crush the life out of him. Connor gave me a lecture. Two deputies held me while he did. Then they drove me home. The shorter one told me he understood why I’d done what I did during the ride. “I don’t need your sympathy,” I said through gritted teeth. “I want my goddamn family back.” They shut up after that.
At the front door, they warned me to keep a lid on my temper, and told me I would be getting a call from the county. A referral to talk to someone. Good head shrinker, the shorter one said.
I sort of respect Vergaard. He’s the kind of man you almost have to respect. One of those self-starters that comes from nothing and makes it into something. The guy is smart. I’ll give him that. He says a lot of things that make me think twice. Likes to quote folks. Here’s an example. “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” That’s supposedly from a guy named Lao Tzu. I looked the guy up. Ancient Chinese philosopher. I think there’s good and bad people in every time, and in every place. I’m not sure how you tell them apart while they’re alive though. It seems to me like history decides all of that for us. I’m not quite sure I trust history, whatever that means. It’s just something deep down in my guts.
Anyhow, Vergaard is a patient guy. He’s been helping me “channel my rage” and “redirect it into positive force.” I know, it sounds hokey, but hey, so does church, if you ask me. I believe everyone has something to teach us, even if that just means they teach us how not to do things. But Vergaard, he’s alright. He listens. Then he gives me ideas about how to be better. I think I’m slowly getting better. I don’t dream that Dwayne killing my wife and daughter dream as much. Now, I dream about sunsets and solitude. We’ve been talking a lot about letting go, and forgiveness. Sometimes we talk about Dwayne. He’s getting out of prison in a few months.
“What do you think you’d want to say to him, if he were in this room with us?” Vergaard asks me.
“I’d ask him if he forgives himself for what happened,” I say. We’ve had this conversation before, and I’m still not ready for forgiveness. Maybe though, I’m getting closer.
“That’s a good question to ask,” Vergaard says. “Often, those who unintentionally harm others struggle with it for the rest of their lives.”
I don’t say it out loud, but I don’t believe this statement. In my opinion, Dwayne Johnson is getting better quality of sleep than I am. And he’s damn sure getting better quality of life than Becca and Ava are.
After the session, I go out to where my family is buried, and I talk to them for a while. I like Vergaard, but what they tell me makes more sense than some of what he does.
March 14, 2016
I’m not a great painter. I took a few classes before I planned the trip down here. It’s fascinating, how you can take a bunch of colors and swirl them all together to make a picture. This swamp is called blackwater. There’s so many pictures here. I’m close to a place called Billy’s Island. I have no idea who he was, but I like this place he left behind. Going on my second day, I’ve seen otters, sandhill cranes, ospreys and even a water turkey. Those things are kind of ugly, if you ask me. The centerpiece I set up is looking good. My goal is to paint the center piece with sunset overhead seven times. Wish me luck. I think this experience is going to be cathartic.
March 15, 2016
A few mosquitos bit me when I was painting while the sun fell last night. Oh, and the centerpiece fell over. The ground is pretty marshy, so that’s no surprise. I called the Doc when I was back in the RV for the night. I promised him I’d check in. “How are you Caleb?” he asked. “Is the vacation treating you well?” I told him about the water moccasin I almost didn’t notice because I was so caught up in getting the colors just right. “You be careful,” he said. “Lots of the creatures that live down there bite. Some of them are venomous. I wouldn’t want you to get into any kind of a situation.” I’m in a situation all right. I didn’t say that out loud. What I said was, “I’m OK Doc. The sunsets down here are just like you said. Spectacular.” Doc asked me about how the RV was working out. I paid for it out of the insurance settlement from Dwayne’s company. Two million dollars. It’s what I’ve been living off since what they call an accident happened. Blood money, if you ask me. Blood money that’s paying for these amazing Florida sunsets.
“Will you send me a painting?” I think Doc Vergaard is genuinely curious. I told him that I would. I promised him I’d mail it from the closest post office in the morning.
Florida is pretty this time of year. I think its proving good for my soul.
March 16, 2016
I mailed off a canvas to the Doc. Had it packaged up in one of those roll up tubes they used to deliver blueprints to the job sites. I’m sure it will get to him in time. I wonder what he’ll think when he sees my sunset. Maybe he won’t like the style. I’m pretty sure he might not. The center piece fell over again tonight. It was a little harder to set the scene back up this time. The swamp critters are more interested than when I first pulled up in the RV. Maybe they like the smell.
March 17, 2016
The sunset tonight was just amazing. It was full of reds and purples, and some lightning! I made sure I took a digital photo so I could get all the details. I shot about 100 frames and then went through them. Frame 18 was a really big spike. It went all the way down to the ground and blazed up. I got every detail of the tree on fire at the bottom. My center piece almost seemed irrelevant next to the glory of that strike. I have to admit, that sometimes, I wonder if there isn’t a God directing the show. But then I think of Becca and Ava. Strike. You’re out. Nah. It can’t be.
March 18, 2016
The center piece is starting to look wilted. I’ve been watering it, but not enough. That’s all part of the plan though. Still life in decay.
March 19, 2016
I haven’t been eating enough, and when the center piece fell over this time, it was really hard to set everything back up. I had to re-asses the plan and take a break. I missed the sunset, but it was necessary. Thank goodness for digital cameras. I made myself Boom Boom meatballs and felt better. I finished sunset six around 2 a.m. and fell into a deep sleep devoid of dreams. I haven’t slept this soundly since the “accident.”
March 20, 2016
On the road. The project is complete! I’m so glad that Doc Vergaard encouraged me to come down here. Something about this week has felt right from the beginning. I left it right where I set it up. I think it died sometime last night. That was the plan. Start with seven ounces of water and then reduce it by one ounce a day until we reached zero. Dwayne made a perfect centerpiece for those seven sunsets I painted. I feel so much better. At the end, his desiccated body made me feel like everything under the sun was in its right place. Most beautiful sunset of my life.