Nonfiction from NER 42.2 (2021)
t is 1966 and I am sitting on a stool at the Burger King on Merritt Island, Florida, eating French fries. My view is Highway 520 and the cars speeding up to the rare stoplight just beyond where I sit. My father, my sister, and I have been to Cocoa Beach to swim and are on our way home. I always beg to stop at the Burger King. I am always famished after swimming and there is nowhere to eat on the beach. Also, we are not a fast food family so this is a treat, something my mother, who never goes to the beach, does not know about. I love how, after being at the beach, the French fries taste doubly salty.
Then a station wagon with a surfboard on top smacks into the rear end of a long, low convertible with its top down, which is stopped for the red light. There is a tremendous noise. I feel it in my body, metal on metal, and the surfboard goes flying off the top of the station wagon, through the air. It decapitates the driver of the convertible. Just like that.
I remember this. I can close my eyes and feel that metal on metal in my body. Right now, I am living in an apartment in Montevideo, Uruguay, where a side street, Joaquin de Salteraín, crosses the busy Bulevar España. The nearest light is several blocks away, over a hill. There are terrible accidents at this intersection. I hear them. Brakes squealing, glass breaking, that awful remembered metal on metal. Cars flip. Suitcases, purses, all kinds of personal belongings are scattered across the pavement. Ambulances arrive. Even now, when there is hardly any traffic because of the coronavirus quarantine, there are accidents. This week a car hit a guy on a Pedidos Ya! delivery bike and the rider went flying. I heard that. I saw that.
And I remember the accident in front of the Burger King. What I can’t remember is the head. In my memory the head is just a round empty circle, like a speech bubble in a cartoon. It rolls back along the surfboard and then off one side, onto the road on the far side of the car and out of sight. But there is no blood. No hair. No face. Does this mean the accident did not happen? That my memory is a lie? How could I not remember a severed head? How could the head be missing?
I can close my eyes and see the surfboard flying forward, gleaming, freshly waxed. I have a good memory of its size, its color. In 1966, it would have been a long board, heavy, with a wicked pointed nose. I look up photos. Like this one, I think. Or this. At least ten feet long, weighing maybe fifty pounds. Enough for the impact to cut right through a neck and send the head rolling back along the surfboard.
But I doubt myself.
I have told this story over the years. It is not, as they say, “a story to dine out on.” But I have told it. I thought I had written about it in my memoir Space, which covers this very part of my life, starting when I moved to Cocoa in 1966 when I was ten and stretching through all those years spent growing up in the shadow of the space program, of nights lit by rockets to the moon. In my apartment here in Uruguay, I don’t have a copy of Space with me, but I use Google search to look inside the book. I search for “car accident.” Nothing. I search for “surfboard.” I search for “head” and find several mentions, but none of them about ones no longer attached to a body. I search “Burger King.” Zip. I could have sworn it was in there. But I published the book in 1998, twenty-two years ago. And the problem with a memoir is it is never big enough to include everything that happened in your life.
I know I thought about including it. I remember asking my sister if she remembered the accident. She said she did. She told me she’d gone to the bathroom to wash her hands before she ate and when she came out, everyone was standing at the door and windows, looking out. I asked her if she remembered anything more about it. My sister has always been squeamish about blood. She faints whenever she has blood drawn, even if she is lying down. So I didn’t want to ask her leading questions about the head. She said she remembered our dad was furious because traffic was stopped for a long time and it took us hours to get home.
I have no memory of that. And neither of us could remember where my father was when all this happened. He died in 1981, so there is no way to ask him. And my mother, whom he might have told about the accident, died in 1982. Maybe my father was sitting beside me and saw the accident too. Maybe he was in the restroom like my sister or ordering our food. Maybe he was pacing impatiently around. In my mind’s eye, I see him, ridiculously enough, fiddling with his iPhone, a device that would not exist until the next century. But he had the kind of absent-minded inattention that goes with a parent always looking at their phone, though he was the one who took the time to take us to the beach, not my mother.
I remember when I was researching Space sitting in the Cocoa Public Library, scrolling through microfilm, I looked for any mention of the car accident. 1966 was the first year for the local paper, Today!, a name that used to seem like a joke in an era of papers with names like the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald. But Today! became Florida Today! And then USA Today!, complete with the once ridiculous exclamation point, and so stopped being the punchline for a joke. But I couldn’t find anything about the car crash. Now, I try again. Nearly all the back issues of Today! are online now, but only starting with 1968, not 1966.
I use my computer to call my sister back in the US. She has been in bad health, her memory comes and goes. This time, she tells me she doesn’t remember the car crash. I tell her what she told me about our father’s impatience with the traffic.
“That sounds like him,” she says.
I do know when, later that year, I fell twenty feet from a tree in a neighbor’s backyard onto a concrete patio, crushing four vertebrae in my back, collapsing a lung, and breaking my jaw and all the fingers on my left hand, it felt like that car crash had sounded. And years later, when a car full of teenagers ran a red light a few blocks from my home in Wisconsin and smashed into my Mazda station wagon, sending me spinning across three lanes of traffic and bashing my head against the window, I felt that impact of car on car and thought, “So this is what it feels like.”
I saw the crash. I felt that crash and my body remembered it. But did I really see the surfboard cut a woman’s head off? Because in my memory, it is a woman, with long blond hair, tied in a scarf against the wind. I was looking at her before the accident and I remember thinking I wanted to look like that when I grew up.
So why can’t I see in my memory what happened to her head?
I am making myself crazy with this. I wonder if it might be possible to do an equation that would tell me what speed the station wagon had to be going, how heavy the surfboard had to be to cut through a woman’s neck. When I think of it that way, it seems absurd. First, because I am hopeless at math. Second, sitting here right now at my computer in Montevideo, my neck seems too sturdy for any surfboard to cut through it. But then again, I am a perfectly healthy woman, spending her sixtieth day shut in her apartment because there is an invisible virus outside that could cut off my ability to breathe. So, my doubt may be just the inability of all humans to really believe in death, to recognize how fragile our bodies are.
This is what I do know, what I do remember with perfect clarity. When the station wagon hit the convertible, a camera came flying out of the convertible and landed on the sandy strip next to the car. It was a Kodak Instamatic, the kind that took a rotating flash cube. Our family owned one just like it. The camera arced through the air, bounced several times before it stopped. I remember a teenage boy, who had been standing in the parking lot, ran forward, picked up the camera, and calmly walked off with it.
I have never been able to get that out of my mind. Not just that he so calmly stole a dead woman’s camera, but that there was almost certainly film in it. She had been at the beach. I imagined a whole twenty–four–shot roll of ocean waves, long sandy stretches of beach, and maybe friends sunbathing, waving at her. If she was a tourist, maybe shots of a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Or, if she was like my family, which was careful about using up film, maybe there was an entire year of her life on that single roll: birthday cake with lit candles, Christmas tree, crying baby, new puppy. What, I wanted to know, had happened to the film? Had the thief just popped the roll out of the camera and tossed it? Maybe. It was proof the camera was stolen.
But somehow, I have always been sure he did not. I have always imagined he got the photos developed, tucked them in a drawer somewhere, under his underwear or socks. And years went by. The colors would have shifted, faded, as they did then. Did he take them out to look at sometimes? Those color squares from another life? Maybe at some point all the old photos, the woman’s and his as well, had been given away.
I’ve spent hours sorting through those boxes of discarded family photos in antique malls, at Goodwill stores with my husband who, before he retired, taught the history of photography. Wedding receptions and Thanksgiving dinners with whole tables full of now anonymous family, just given away.
Those photos are out there somewhere. I am sure of it. I have always been sure of it.
Because they are what is left of the woman in the convertible. Those photos exist in place of the missing head and the memories that were in that head. If they still exist, she still exists. If she still exists, even in a handful of photos, then I will still exist—in old photos, in the books I wrote—after I die, maybe of coronavirus, maybe crossing that dangerous intersection in front of my apartment.
I wish I had one of those photos from her camera. Even just one. All I have is this, a photo I found it on the Facebook group “Growing Up in Brevard County” of the Burger King on Highway 520 and S. Plumosa Street, in Merritt Island, Florida.
And a photo makes it all seem real, doesn’t it? ■