Katie’s Light (2001)

Why did a little girl leave me with two extra flashers? Before long, I’d know.

The Mega Bike Stobe flashing taillight

The Mega Bike Stobe flashing taillight

"I’VE NEVER BEEN so excited about a fifteen-dollar bike light!” I exclaim to my wife, blinding her with my new find, the Mega Bike Strobe.

“When it comes to safety,” Lina replies, squinting, “it doesn’t take much to excite you.”

Lina doesn’t get it. The Mega’s light-emitting diodes rival the LEDs found on the $100 NiteRider. They scream “Look out!” left, right, and rear. If its flashing LEDs make you feel nerdy, you can set them to Steady.

My daughter Alexa uses a triangular strobe favored by cops and road crews. But the Mega far outshines it.

As long as I’m ordering Alexa’s light, I can add two for Kristen and Katie, next door. Katie, nine, has demo’d my sample to her folks, reporting back, “We’ll take four.”

Order four lights on the word of a pint-size girl with an outsize imagination? I don’t think so. I order them two.

When the strobes arrive, I carry a pair next door, where Katie is shooting hoops. “Give these to your dad,” I say; “they’re $32.” Grabbing the lights, she runs inside. 

Three minutes later, the somber figure of Katie’s father emerges, a strobe in each hand. “There’s been a misunderstanding,” he apologizes. “I never told Katie to order any.” 

Katie is cowering behind a bush.

“No problem,” I smile. “I stash orange triangles in my trunk, for stranded motorists. I’ll use the triangles in the day and the blinkers at night.” I unlock my Taurus and lay one light on the center console.

The next morning, I’m winding south on River Road, lost in thought. I ordered Katie’s lights in good faith. What was she thinking?

Katies_light_Safety-Vest-95541JB-.jpg

Suddenly, 30 yards ahead, I notice a crewman standing sideways, point-blank in my path. I slam on the brake pedal for all I’m worth. Thud-thud-thud goes the antilock brake system. 

Mygod, that was close. Why didn’t I see him sooner?

As the crewman turns to face me, my unspoken question is answered. The corners of his orange-and-yellow vest dangle, unclasped. Without the bright colors, his profile practically vanished.

I glance at the bike light beside me. The manufacturer, strobe specialist CMI, Inc.,  thoughtfully designed it with a steel belt clip. As my Taurus passes the crewman, I think, “Hand him the light.”

Instead, I drive on, shaken…and cursing myself for keeping the light and nearly killing a man. Pay attention, Paul. Off goes the radio, down go the windows.

Evening arrives. The Taurus and I return north on River Road, nearing the scene of our almost-crime. As I enter Potomac, Maryland, I pass an aging Ford station wagon. It’s sitting dead in a southbound lane, its blinkers pulsing faintly. Behind the wheel sits a dreadlocked, dark-skinned black man. Odd sights in this hoity-toity town.

Turning around, I pull up behind my fellow Ford owner. “I have long jumper cables,” I offer. “Can you use a jump?”

“Yes, yes, thank you,” says the driver.

I race behind my Taurus and set the strobe in the road, 100 feet back. We untangle the cables and hook them up. “It’s been acting up since last week,” the driver apologizes, “but I haven’t had the cash to fix it.” “Gary,” I learn, works at a camp for disabled kids. “I just hope it gets me to DC.”

Listening to the old Ford’s straight-six sputter, I have my doubts. “Would you like me to follow you?” I offer.

“Would you? Could you follow me into DC?”

“Sure,” I smile. How can I not? If that bucket of bolts dies again, Gary will be a sitting duck. I hand him the strobe.

We set out. As the stately mansions of Potomac recede, we enter a stretch of road still upscale but decidedly urban. 

With a sputter, the old Ford expires in the center lane.

It’s late rush hour, and the sun is setting. Retrieving the strobe, I race behind my Taurus, where I set up a triangle, then another, then the strobe, propped up by its clip like a picture frame. Man, it’s bright. As center-lane traffic peels off to the side lanes, I feel like Moses dividing the sea.

But this time, Gary’s car won’t start. Our only choice is to abandon it in a small shopping plaza. As Gary steers, I push the old Ford onto the plaza’s side street. But the street runs uphill, and I run out of steam beside the pulsing blue light of a police car. There’s been an accident, with injuries.

“You can’t leave this here,” says the policeman.

“We know,” I say. “We’re trying to park it over there.”

“I’ll help you push,” says the officer. “Doreen, stop traffic.” A policewoman lifts her hand, and traffic halts.

“I’ll help,” offers a Russian immigrant; “if my back is OK.” Our comrade was in the accident. In a white dress shirt and tie, he joins us behind the bumper. “Ready? Go!”

In seconds the Ford is in the parking lot. Gary glides it into a remote parking space. From here, he’ll call a friend. 

I race back to River Road, collect the safety gear, and park my Ford beside Gary’s.

“Thanks, man,” says Gary. “I owe you.”

“Are you kidding?” I say. “I live for moments like this.” Gary understands.

“Well, let me buy you a cold drink,” he says. 

At the plaza grocery, I select a cranberry drink. A buck fifty; I apologize. “Don’t worry about it,” says Gary.

Without permission to park overnight, Gary’s Ford will be towed. So we climb to the upper level to locate the manager. A haggard old man is inching down, clutching the rail. A plastic grocery bag tugs at his free arm. “Homeless,” whispers Gary, “in a neighborhood like this.”

The manager has gone home. We return to the Ford, where Gary leaves a note. Finally, we shake hands once more. “Take the light,” I say.

“Keep it,” he insists. “I won’t be driving at night till it’s fixed. I hand him a triangle; he promises to pass it on.

As my Taurus pulls onto the side street, I pass the old man, shuffling. “Sir,” I say, “can I drive you somewhere?” 

He looks up. “McDonald’s. Down the road.” River Road.

As he closes the door, the car fills with the fetid stench of urine-soaked clothes. “Down on your luck?” I offer.

“My back is killing me,” comes the raspy reply.

At McDonald’s, I park. Thanking me, the old man leaves.

Night has fallen. As I reach the busy street, the old man is about to baby-step across. “He’ll never make it,” I think.

Katie’s light. I grab it, set it flashing, and roll down the window. “Sir, can you use this?”

He fondles the light, squints, and grins, toothless. “Why, this is just what I need. Just what I need.”

© 2001 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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