When Scarlet Fever found me.
When the old dude who lived next door’s tree house gave way to one hundred feet of tree limbs, hitting and falling, then hitting again. My torso tangled in the rope swing, dangling six feet above the hard, root-filled dirt.
When my father took me hunting, drunk, and shot a hole through the hood of our truck. When my father took me anywhere.
When my brother threw a brick at my head in ambush. His aim was very good.
When I learned to drive. When I learned to drink. When I learned to combine them.
When I introduced my girlfriend to my father. When my father met her mother. When my father married her mother. When that girl said, “Let’s keep dating.”
When I was jogging, then hit by a car, and my body flipped up onto the hood. My face pressed to the glass, inches from the driver’s face. When the driver slammed on the brakes, catapulting me off the hood and into the street. I never found my radio.
When I learned my college dormitory would be coed. When I looked in the mirror, naked, and thought about what that meant.
When the redneck shot me with a blow-gun and all I could think of was poison. When my mother arrived at the hospital with her shirt on backwards and inside out. When we got home and a man I didn’t know sat at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes.
When my brother married and moved away. When he and his wife let me hold their first-born child.
When the boat ran in reverse, and no one knew it but me, waltzing with propeller blades in six feet of water.
When I free climbed a 100 foot pitch, in hiking boots, because I couldn’t listen to that girl say one more word.
When I climbed the Grand Teton, and the rope wasn’t long enough. I started up the pitch, not yet on Belay, with 5,000 feet of exposure. When the guide finally made the top, clipped in, and turned around smiling. He laughed. My fingertips bled.
When I quit climbing.
When I quit that girl.
When I forgave my dying alcoholic father, and he looked at me and asked, “For what?” When, at the funeral, my father’s best friend squinted and asked me, “Why couldn’t you have been a team player?” and I smelled whiskey on his breath.
When I asked the new girl to marry me, guessing I had even odds.
When she said “Of course.” Frantic, I asked, “Does that mean yes?”
When she said, “Yes. That means yes.”
When we drank a few bottles of wine, after the marriage, and we discussed moving to Mobile.
When she said, “Well, we both have parents there.” When I said, “and the ocean and the Bay is so close.” I looked at our dog and asked, “What do you think, girl? Should we move?” When she, of course, said nothing.
In the morning, I wanted to take all our recycling to the center so there would be room for that evening’s guests.
I made it exactly one half mile before I eased through a green light and a man on the right side of the intersection decided he could make it if he gunned it. So he made it up to 40mph before he hit me. When it was a solid hit, pushing me into the next lane and getting hit by an SUV, minding its own business.
The worst part is that I knew the people in the SUV and worse still was having known their eldest son, who killed himself. I thought about it for months afterwards, “Why them, and for God’s sake, why me?”
They are the nicest people, and I never even remember hitting the brakes. In fact, I don’t remember a solitary thing. Everything I know has been told to me. Sometimes, when I look at the pictures, someone with car-knowledge will be sure to say, “No way anyone survived that wreck!” I sheepishly raise my hand and tell them, “Well I did.”
When then they say, “You are one lucky motherfucker.”
I try to think of that statement when I’m either getting in or out of the wheelchair and not feeling very lucky.
So after that I was told the old high school was keeping my job secure for me. My wife had started her fundraising job for the school while I was recovering.
When I felt like a charity case.
When I went to therapy 5 days a week and tried to get myself better. When it was no use. When I decided I should try myself.
So I thought as an act of independence, I should clean myself up without help. I got my hands clean and was washing my face before I fell. I had gotten blurry vision in the wreck which was worsened by the soap getting in my eyes.
When I got dizzy and fell. I tried to stop my fall by grabbing a hand towel. It slowed me down but then my weight kicked in and the towel bar came flying out of the wall.
When I hit the floor, butt–first. When I realized I was okay and grabbed the side of the counter-top. When I pulled myself up to a standing position and grabbed the now fallen hand towel to wipe my face. When I realized how far back the wheelchair had become and knew I couldn’t make it.
When I got myself back down on the floor and crawled to the wheelchair.
When I thought, as I was pulling myself up to the seat, “Why is my life like this?”
When I decided, “Back to therapy.”
Then I thought about Shane. He had been my best friend. Shane, as usual, was out kayaking. It was a freak accident. He just wanted to shake the leaves out of his hair.
So Shane, like always, wiggled his hips and flipped the kayak over. So far, so good. Then when he had finished an underwater shake and tried to flip back to the surface, he realized that his kayak was stuck between a fallen tree and a rock.
When he couldn’t get the rest of the turn done. He stared up at the surface and tried everything he could think of. But he was where he was and not able to get the kayak free, he finally couldn’t stand it and took a breath.
What that really meant was sucking a large amount of water into his lungs. I’m sure that at that moment, he thought about his wife Alison and if she would be okay? Then he drowned.
When Alison told me the news.
When my brother told me that the name of his little girl, who was in my arms, was Allison. I smiled and looked up and said “All right Shane, she is fine. Don’t need to worry about her.”
Whenever I see Allison and she smiles and says, “Hi Uncle Murray, let’s have some fun!”
When, on some days, it brings tears to my eyes.
When on most days, it makes me smile.
Murray Dunlap’s fiction has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, Night Train, New Delta Review, Red Mountain Review, Silent Voices and Smokelong Quarterly and others. His stories have been twice nominated to the Pushcart Prize and to Best New American Voices, and his first book, Alabama, was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. After very nearly being killed in a terrible car wreck, the writer uses this blog to vent: http://murraydunlapwriter.blogspot.com/.