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 Vergaard’s advice. I’m here. Ready to paint. Let’s see if my shrink has any shitting idea what he’s talking about. One week in one of the world’s biggest swamps. 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. Not counting my subject, of course. I hear lots of sounds, but none of them are being made by humans. Not counting the muse I brought with me. 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 for this 11-story hotel reno I was working on back then. Fuck me. The usual story, someone not paying attention to what the plans called for. If I had to put money on it, the guy responsible was a boozer too. Probably had too many fingers the night before and misread the spec. The globes were supposed to be frosted, not clear. That’s the kind of mistake that can suck all the profit out of a job.
I had to get down to the site pronto.
“Sorry honey,” I said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” I gave them both a kiss, like always, and headed to the site. Rebecca texted me a few hours later to tell me she needed a couple things from the grocery store. Later, I learned she had been planning to make me Boom Boom meatballs. My favorite meal.
Dwayne Tucker, 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. In his lifted Ford F-150 with the LED ground kit. Fuck me.
Dwayne had been drinking, as usual. At 6:32, he blew through a red light in his Ford F150 and hit 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 died instantly, so they told me at the hospital. Why the fuck they take corpses to the hospital is something I still don’t understand. Dwayne’s engine block replaced the space where Becca’s body was supposed to be safe and sound inside a steel and glass bubble. The cast iron and aluminum block caused massive trauma to her entire body. We had to have a closed casket funeral for her. Fuck, I hate funerals. They’re so morbid. I was glad it was closed casket. I got Sue, her best friend, to do a photo collage of when Becca was at her happiest.
Ava hung on for seven days in the ICU. She missed the funeral, which I was grateful for. 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. I didn’t have the heart to tell her Mommy was just ashes and memories. I told her Mommy was going to be back soon. She slipped back into oblivion and the machines they had hooked up to her started beeping like crazy. I got kicked out of the room. I raised hell but the staff got security and security got me out despite my best attempts to fight them. Later, they eventually let me sit in there with her. My dear Ava. 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 was 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, extended nervous breakdown. It started a few days after the second funeral. I poured a lot of Maker’s Mark down my throat and cursed god a lot.
Still had bills to pay, so I climbed out of the bottle and went back to work. Numb and full of hate for Dwayne. After a couple weeks of shitty performance, the boss told me to take some time off, and I did.
I drank some whiskey. Then I tried to make sense of what happened. Then I drank some bourbon. Again. And again. My new cycle, sans family.
I failed. Soon, I was on a permanent vacation from work. It was filled with a burning throat, numbness, and 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 Tucker appeared in court two weeks later for a hearing. I was there. I wanted to kill him. 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. I intend to steal from god.
Judge Connor, that cowardly bastard, sentenced 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, black-robed 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 murderer 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. “He helped me get my head back on straight a couple years back.” The cop shrugged like that said everything that needed saying.
The insurance money came through. A silver lining. One million dollars to replace my wife and my child. At least I’ll have a roof over my head while I figure out how I’m going to balance the scales.
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 Tucker 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. If there is something, it or them doesn’t or don’t care about what happens down here.
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 my still life scene feeling serene. 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.
My painting is dry, rolled and ready to mail from Okeechobee. I wonder what Vergaard will think of it.