Neil Allen Smith died on September 18, 2010. He was biking back to his mobile home in Tampa from his dishwashing job at the Crab Shack. Somewhere along the highway, a white car swerved and clipped him. Neil crashed into lightpost, fell over, and never stood again. Three days later, he was dead.
Murder has its own unequal arithmetic. You could die for a fortune, for a cause, for an eightball jacket, or for a momentary distraction felt by the driver sharing your lane. The variables are incomprehensible in the inhuman algebra that finally solves for X.
So it must have been on that September night in Tampa. The driver felt something. A face flashed in the windscreen for a moment, and, from the corner of his eye, he saw the body fly. Insulated by its metal and protected by its speed, he asked himself, in an instant, if he should stop and leave the car. Then the instant passed, and he didn’t.
On Nantucket, where I drive today, the night is full of bicycles. Men are pedaling in the dark, plastic bags tied to their handlebars, windbreakers zipped tight against the chill of the fall. Maybe, like Neil, they ride into town to cover their shifts, work hard and well with their coworkers, and then pedal home to a rented room in an overcrowded house.
In the right light, Neil lived an enviable life. He owed money to no one. He had no one hanging onto him. He had no answering machine, no Facebook account, no Post-its on the door. He took off like Huck Finn; he lit out for the territories. At the end of the night, he looked on shelves of clean pots and pans and felt the glow of a job well done.
I am not Neil Smith. I am in a web of people, debts, and commitments, dangling from a wire perched high above the ground. My disappointments sting and my victories flee. I spend my weeks waiting for the paycheck, avoiding the 888 phone calls, and regretting last night’s $10 margarita. On a good day like today, boredom trumps excitement, the bill collectors mutter, and the wire stays steady and firm.
The father of one of my former students delivers newspapers. He had a career in banking that bounced him from three different companies before office doors just stopped opening for him. His fall from the wire began in haste. There were rumors of women, alcohol, horrendous loans. He is no working-class hero. He remains angry and upset at the unfairness of it all.
Once your career slips off the web, there isn’t much to put it back on track. A bad word, a black mark, and a few too many birthdays will slip your résumé down into the stack of thanks-but-no-thanks. You can pull yourself up, but odds are you can’t get back up on that wire.
And then there’s the speed of descent. How much did you put away, how much does your wife love you, how much money do your parents still have? What are you willing to put up with? Most of us aren’t all that lucky.
They can’t get back on the wire, so they make due in the mud. The past is a cliff and the future is a wall, but the present has a cold beer and the Patriots. They know Neil Smith, they know him well.
The driver that killed Neil still lives. I imagine he told his wife and his insurance agent that he hit a deer. Someone collected a check; someone else swapped out the bumper, the panels, and the rest of the car-body plastic; the rest of the world went on ticking.
The criminal needs only answer to his conscience. Cruelly, terribly, we can understand how a doctor, a lawyer, or a professor, held aloft on his financial and familial high wire, could force himself to forget those incidents, those instants. That biker was probably fine. I just nicked him. I was late; I had to get home.
As for the victim, the nation will not long miss a dishwasher, a Red Sox fan, a cigarette smoker. He did not leave a wife or children or a fortune; he had fallen from the high wire long before. His death left only coworkers and housemates who, in a few weeks, will turn to their own affairs. They will remember him in stories and gestures—and then they won’t.
If Neil were alive, I wouldn’t want to trade lives with him. I wouldn’t want to have spent the last decade of my life as a dishwasher in Tampa.
But I could have. The variables that put me where I am today could have instead given me a four-mile bike ride to work, a $7.50-an-hour wage, and a shared mobile home in Hollywood park.
But here I am. I drive home in my new Toyota, Jackson Browne on the stereo, air conditioning chilling the car. Today is a good day. Boredom trumps excitement.
Outside the car, dark figures on bicycles press on. From the protection of a steel frame and airtight glass, I peer at them, and I ponder.