Big Pine

James David Cohn

You have to go back, the cop at the checkpoint said.

I’m a resident, I live on Big Pine Key, Noah explained, handing his driver’s license through the open window. The cop looked at the license and said, Noah, huh? Well that’s perfect. But you have to go back. He offered the license back to Noah but Noah didn’t want to take it, he figured as long as the cop had his license there was still time to make his pitch.

You don’t understand, said Noah. I have seven cats. They’ve probably run out of food by now. If my house is flooded and there’s standing water, it’s seawater and they can’t drink it and they can’t get to their food bowls either.

Sorry, said the cop. Make a U-turn and go back.

You don’t understand, said Noah, his voice louder than he wanted it to be and he thought, don’t raise your voice. He wanted to explain but he couldn’t think of anything more to say.

I understand, said the cop. But I’m not letting you through.

Noah still didn’t take the license. He said, I saw you guys letting other people through.

We’re letting first responders and medical personnel through, said the cop. Doctors and nurses. Also sanitation and sewer employees. Everyone else has to go back.

You don’t understand, Noah repeated. He thought, you’re like a broken record, say something else, but he still couldn’t think of anything to say.

I understand, said the cop.

You understand, but you’re not letting me through?

I understand that you want to go home, said the cop. I also understand that we can’t let people back when we can’t even protect the ones who stayed. If I let you through, you’ll get home, you’ll eat, you’ll crap, what happens to the sewage? Look, all the people in these cars are, no offense, shit machines and we can’t process the shit that’s already here. Sorry about the language. You have to go back. He reached through the window and dropped Noah’s license in his lap.

Noah stared down at the license but made no move to pick it up. He looked up at the cop’s face and he could see his own face in the mirrored lenses of the cop’s sunglasses and he saw how wild and out of control he looked, his hair, his five-day stubble, the effect exaggerated by the fisheye quality of his reflection. Could you take off your sunglasses? Noah asked.

Turn your car around, said the cop, reaching down with his right hand out of Noah’s view, and Noah thought he was reaching for his gun, but instead he realized the cop was pressing his hand flat against the side of the car. He’s putting his fingerprints on my car, thought Noah, like they’re taught to do in case someone is about to turn violent.

Noah wanted to keep the conversation going, he wanted to keep the tone normal and reasonable and he did the best he could though his voice seemed an octave higher than usual, but he made sure he spoke at what he gauged to be a non-threatening volume. Look, I know you understand, and I understand your position too, we both understand. We understand each other and we understand the situation, but that’s what I’m looking for, a little more understanding. It’s not just the cats, I mean maybe you’re a dog person or maybe you’re not into pets at all, but I have to go home. I could make up a grandmother who refused to leave or some kind of lie like that but I’m not, I’m being honest with you. I just need to get home.

The word home came out much louder than he had intended and it seemed to surprise Noah more than the cop.

Two drops of rain fell on the front of the cop’s shirt, leaving dark stains against the brown uniform, which struck Noah as odd, the sky being a picture-perfect cloudless blue, so it must be sweat, Noah thought, and then he saw more tears on the cop’s face. Just turn around, the cop said. Now. Please.

The cop straightened up and backed away from the car, motioning to Noah with a horizontal circling motion of his index finger to turn and go. Noah looked at his rear-view mirror at the endless line of cars behind him in the southbound lane, at the empty northbound lane inviting him to make his U-turn and go back.

He made the turn into the northbound lane and waited there a moment. Then he pulled onto the shoulder to collect his thoughts. In the mirror he saw the cop talking to another motorist. Then that car, too, made a U-turn and drove past Noah on the way north.

Noah thought about leaving his car and walking the 21 miles to Big Pine. But the heat was already unbearable and it wasn’t even nine yet and he had 72 bottles of water in his trunk for himself and the cats, eight bags of dry cat food and cartons of canned food with flip-top lids. The cop was wrong about the shit, he had an Army surplus collapsible shovel in the trunk and he could bury his shit and the cats’ shit in the yard. It was all do-able.

He thought about getting out of his car and explaining all this to the cops but they had a prisoner transport van parked behind the checkpoint and he didn’t want to end up inside it.

He took out his phone. There were seven texts from his sister with increasing levels of concern and blame. There was a voicemail from his ex-girlfriend that he still hadn’t listened to. The cellular service was flickering in and out. He was on the border between civilization and the wilds.

There was a tap on his window that startled him. Noah rolled down the window. The cop said I can’t let you park on the shoulder, you have to go back.

But I’m not in anyone’s way, Noah objected.

We have to keep every available passage clear, said the cop.

Noah opened his mouth but nothing came out. The cop turned and walked back toward the checkpoint. Noah looked in his rear-view mirror at the cars doing their U-turns and heading north. It was a bottleneck: an unbroken line of southbound cars in front of him as far north as he could see, and a few northbound cars behind him trickling back the way they’d come. He did a quick calculation. If each motorist took as long as he did in his conversation with the cop, they could only process twenty or thirty cars an hour. He had waited seven hours in the southbound crawl, and with every second more cars were joining the line up north beyond his view, miles and miles of them.

In his mirror he saw a car making a U-turn, waited for it to pass him, and moved his car into the northbound lane. He drove so slowly that cars passed him on the shoulder, the drivers often leaning on their horns and gesturing angrily. He moved north reluctantly, resenting each mile. Every bridge was a failure, an admission that he was taking another step in the wrong direction.

Approaching a bridge, he pulled onto the shoulder and got out of his car. He walked forward onto the bridge and looked at the line of creeping cars heading south. He could see the faces of the people in the cars and they were his face, anxious and weary and preparing their speech for the cops, all in vain, he thought. The cop is right, we’re all full of shit and more shit is not what the Keys need.

The occasional northbound car zoomed past him.

Noah looked east toward the horizon. The day was perfect, blue and tranquil; hot, yes, but there was a breeze up here on the bridge, the slow incline of the bridge had brought him up to where he could feel it caressing his skin. A fly landed on his arm and he brushed at it. It hopped onto his shirt and he took off his distance glasses to look at it. It wasn’t a fly but a cricket, a baby, maybe two millimeters long. Hello little fella, he thought, you can come with me, now neither of us is alone.

He looked back at his car and he saw a police car parked behind it on the shoulder. The cop was getting out of his car. Noah walked back to his car and the cop said sorry, you can’t park here. I know, said Noah. I’m sorry, the cop repeated, and he got back in his cruiser, heading south on the shoulder against the trickle of cars in the northbound lane. Noah got back in his car and started the engine. He looked down at the cricket but it was gone.

He looked in his rear-view mirror. Seeing no cars in the northbound lane, he gunned the accelerator and the car lurched onto the highway. There was a sound of metal on metal, a noise that was very loud indeed, and his head slammed against the driver’s side window. A car had come up out of his blind side, it must have been right next to him and a little behind when he hit the accelerator. He heard other noises as the other car careened into the line of southbound cars and he spun his steering wheel hard to the right, realizing as he did so that he was engaging in a classic error of overcorrection. His car veered to the right, off the highway, off the shoulder, almost hitting the guardrail where the bridge began but passing to the right and in front of it and then he was airborne and it was very quiet.

He was weightless, floating in his harness, and he had time to think, just like an astronaut who’s going to sleep.

His view was rotated 90 degrees and he realized the car had turned onto its side as it took flight. The sky was to his left, still a picture-perfect cloudless blue, smiling at him and beckoning, but out the right window was the water, shallow and clear, and the water was racing toward him. Then the car was fully upside-down and his weight returned, all his weight seeming to be concentrated in his head. The water was so clear that he could see the bottom rushing toward him, the sand and the coral grit and the seaweed and it was like coming home.

© 2018 James David Cohn