Georgia Bar Journal
GSB Vol. 13, NO. 7, Pg. 46.
The Dark Part of the Road: 17th Annual Fiction Writing Competition Winner
GSB JournalVol. 13, NO. 7June 2007The Dark Part of the Road: 17th Annual Fiction Writing Competition WinnerLisa SiegalThe baggie of crystal meth was Willie's payment for crouching in the dark along the propertied shoreline of Lake Burton with nothing but field mice for company. A thermos of coffee kept his brain cells firing, so that when dawn broke, he could report back to Breeze Diego that the summer cabin of Clyde McDade was as still as a church on a Saturday night. Being on the low end of the Diego's food chain meant spending his evenings here (and at other well-catalogued vacation properties), squatting down amongst the boggy spruces and sumac trees, and eyeballing property all night with binoculars. Once he'd documented an unoccupied cabin, Diego's boys would come in for the night haul, taking out the Bose stereos, laptops, and flat-screens stocked-piled like firewood in these weekend cabins.
Willie rested against a sumac tree that crested the bank of the McDade property. Behind him a black forest of wooded pine disappeared into the expanse of night sky and twitching stars. He opened his thermos for a swig with his shaking, liver-spotted hand, and then stretched the tendons of his legs in front of him trying to wiggle his toes inside his Army boots. The diabetes had stiffened his joints and ulcerated his big toe, making walking hard and self-medicating with meth all the more appealing. He patted the baggie with his free hand and vowed to wait until morning before he opened it.
The weakness in his legs destroyed any likelihood of advancing as a career criminal as Breeze (being a quick study) was apt to point out to him; but at least here in the chill of night he had his barn coat, wool socks, a full stomach, three cigarettes, a thermos of coffee, and the promise of a morning high. He was a solitary man and he was comforted in his own odd way by the scurry of the red squirrels in the sloping pine needle bluff, more so than if he had been home watching his black-and-white in his bare apartment with the gray-washed walls. Nights like that left him thinking of Sheila and his boys and how he'd let it all go to pot with the drinking. Better to be out here with some hawking Peregrine and the cold, damp, soggy earth than alone in the rental thinking of her.
Just as Willie was about to lower his binoculars, a Lexus pulled into the gravel drive, crunching the pebbles and shining its headlights onto the back lawn of the house. Seconds later, a yellow Volkswagen pulled in behind it.
The sound of crackling pea stone and the upward beam of lights startled Willie. He fumbled for his knapsack and scrambled up the side of the hill with his knees still bent and aching. His racing heart pumped adrenaline to his working extremities, but his mind was addled as he tried to assess his situation. He felt neither the cold of the air, nor the dampness of his clothes, but saw only too quickly that he was too close to the house. The occupants of the car were getting out and the headlights splayed down into the woods directly onto the spot where he had been. He wasn't much for anticipating disasters, but even he could see that any movement on his part would call attention to his unexplainable situation. He hunched down low against the back of the sumac. Damn! Breeze had not prepared him for this!
A man and a woman exited the car. Willie recognized Clyde McDade from the marina. McDade was over six feet with a mop of wavy, reddish blond hair that seemed boyish for a man in his fifties. At the marina, McDade had a habit of fingering the other crafts with his muscular, stubby hands, and whistling when he did so as if he was counting money in a bank vault. He carried himself with an air of importance that bordered on theatrical. When Willie heard he was a lawyer, it had all made sense.
Willie heard them talking, first softly and then growing a bit louder. Rather than entering the lake house, they started toward the woods, taking the gravel path to the boat dock. Overhead an owl's cry startled Willie, and he pitched forward on a random spread of pinecones and needles. McDade turned and looked out towards the shoreline where Willie lay spreadeagled in the dirt. Willie dared not look up, fearing the worst.
Willie told himself that it would be just a matter of time before McDade located a shotgun and began blowing buckshot into his retreating backside. He scrambled into a thicket of pine trees and determined his quickest get-a-way was to follow the shoreline to the other side of the cabin until he could eye a beeline and access Charlie Mountain Road. One of Diego's boys was scheduled to fetch him at O'Grady's Bar at dawn. He figured he could get back quicker on the main road than risk his bad legs on a nature hike up through the Chattahoochee National Forest on the other side.
Just as Willie was about to hightail it across the property, McDade took the woman by the elbow and steered her down the path to the boat dock. If they kept in this direction, Willie had no chance of escaping via the shoreline. And now it was too late to flee to the other side of the cabin.
The two stopped in the gravel path. Their arguing voices filled the quiet air. Willie fell down on his stomach and rolled towards the boat dock, clutching his knapsack and cursing his bad knees. He scrambled under the dock just on the dry side of the shore.
A woman's voice broke in the air above him. "It's cold out here. I want to go back inside."
"Just listen to me."
Then he heard footsteps approach the wooden ramp way to the dock.
Willie quickly body-rolled down the slope, past a flat bottom aluminum canoe pulled shoreward, and then plunged into the waters that lapped against the lake's edge. He felt the cold of the water saturate his dry clothes. With his pack buoyed against his belly, he floated outward toward the middle of the underside dock. As he did so he heard their footsteps thumping down the plank ramp.
"This isn't what I wanted," she said, "I thought you were going to leave her." Willie heard the unclipping of the lock that moored the flat bottom canoe to the dock's railing.
"You're being overly dramatic here, Diana," McDade said. "Come. Let's go out on the lake."
"We can talk inside."
"There's something I want to give you."
The ground beside Willie was quiet, suggesting the two were studying one another. He saw the woman's feet planted squarely, facing McDade, and then shift, ballerina style, one behind the other.
Finally, she said, "Alright."
A crest of water rushed towards him, splashing up against his whiskered chin, as McDade pushed the boat out into the water and the woman jumped in, unsettling its equilibrium. McDade hopped in quickly behind her. He took the bow seat and pushed off with his thick hands, squeezing the tee grip and the paddle's wood shaft down into the cool black water.
The woman, unsure of what to do, took the stern seat and sat bent-kneed and twisted toward the moonlight.
"You're not getting out of this so easily, Clyde" she said.
"I know that," he said.
There was silence. Willie swallowed his breath in the soggy under-bottom of the dock.
A flock of unsettled, nesting snow geese spread wing with irritation, honked, and lifted up above the shore. Willie watched wide-eyed as the unmoored canoe pushed out past him and into the cold black of night on a lake now lit by the white orb of the moon and a hundred overhead pinpoint stars.
Their voices continued in an unsteady rhythm of accusation, whispered placating, more accusation, and then frustrated pleas for "reasonableness." Hanging onto the underside of the dock, Willie tingled with cold and shuddered off the wet drench of the lake water seeping into his pores. The fear of being caught seemed to leave him momentarily like the exhaust of nicotine through a single nostril.
He thought again of Sheila. God, she had been beautiful. She was not the sort of woman who demanded accommodations for herself, or who would put her foot down in frustration or threaten to leave. She had loved him, tolerated him, and then one day when he awoke from a sloppy drunk, he found a twenty-dollar bill on the counter, a cupboard packed with dry goods and a note that read, "Take care of yourself, Willie."
He let go of the underside of the dock and inched back up onto the sodden shoreline. He reasoned he could crawl like a snake on his belly through the moss lichen until he could see clear enough to steal away. From what he could make out of McDade and the woman, whom he surmised was probably not his wife, the two were continuing a heated conversation that was unwise to have while adrift on a dark lake.
He had been a private in the Marine Corps on Paris Island, crawling through the peat moss when a heat rash and undiagnosed diabetes had caused him to lose consciousness and be shipped back home to Rabun County with a medical discharge and an unmet dream of being part of the "the few and the proud." Twenty years later he was back on his belly, crawling through the stench of soggy-bottomed earth and whiffing lichen dust, only now he was nothing but a two-bit criminal with a drug habit instead of serving his country.
"Clyde! No!" the woman...