I saw a dead man yesterday. A day of laboring, filled with dust and the rattle of tools, with stiff fingers and a knuckle scraped cuss red against a stubborn bolt. Most of the work I was doing was outside. The day was warm on my forearms. My muscles leaned with a vigor into their clenching. It was good to work. The body does prefer to be in motion, I think, to be engaged with the world in the only way that's really meaningful to our meat. It was my wife who reminded me that the Pinewood Derby trial run for my son was today. I stopped what I was doing and stared at her, rubbing my arm across my brow. "It's on the calendar." she said. I nodded. Of course it was. All I had was a block of wood, four nails, four black plastic tires. I needed a band saw. Supplies. Motivation. What I got was a glimpse of how quickly our life on this planet can leave us.
I stopped our car at the end of the dirt road we live on while I waited for a truck to pass on the highway that twists out to the interstate. Dust swirled brownly around the car, settled on the paint softly as breath. I drove without the radio. A day of work is best enhanced with moments of silence. The windows were rolled down and dust glittered in the fine hair on my forearms. I pulled my car out onto the highway slowly, taking my time. Traffic was light on Sundays, with football and the Lord and all. That's when I saw him.
The house was newly built. I'd watched it go up in stages each day I took that left turn toward the interstate. I'd seen the man and a woman out there, both burdened with tools and graying hair. About 60, I'd guessed. I'd only caught glimpses now and then as I rolled past on the way to the store or my work or some other facet of my life. I'd seen him swing a hammer once. I'd marveled at the bridge-cable tendons snapping to life in his arms, how his wife flinched as the hammer struck. Then I was past. Another time he'd been sitting on the roof, just staring out at the wideblue sky, his booted feet dangling off the side, his face tired and unsmiling, but not sad. The garage door was almost always open. Two camping chairs there, both patterned after the Texas flag. Boxes stacked along the garage walls. Plastic shelves with tin can containers. An RV with the wheels shrouded in white covers. The house stood fresh against gnarled junipers and the one lone tall oak with leaves that fluttered off the branches in the wind.
He was face down on the driveway. One arm stretched forward, one behind. His face turned away towards the two empty Texas flag chairs. No tools near him or in his hands. I drove by. He must have been resting, I told myself. The car was near. Perhaps he was working on that. But no. His feet were near the car, head facing away. I kept on driving, past the curve and over the bump and into the dip before the road opened up into the bridge over the drying lake. His wife surely was home. If something's wrong, she'd find him. Outside my window, I watched the black limbs of the trees poking from the brown water dry in the sun. Those limbs moved past slower and slower till finally I stopped on the bridge and heard the sucking silence of the brown mud spread out underneath me and the dead trees persisting in their years of water and moments of air and I asked myself what sort of person I was. Was I the sort that did this, that just drove on? I knew it was 2PM and I needed a bandsaw and the Superbowl started in three hours and I had an entire Pinewood Derby car to build when I'd never built one my entire life, that my fingers would be clumsy with fumbles in that task. I knew all this. But it didn't matter. I didn't want to be that type of man. I turned my car back around.
The gate to their property was closed. Locked. He was still on the ground. Not moved a damn inch. That oak had a laughter in the leaves. I cupped my hands and hollered out at him. Nothing. I yelled louder and then honked my car's horn several times. No movement. No door or window opening on the house either.
I should climb the fence, I thought. And do what? What could I do? I didn't want to climb the fence. People out here don't take well to trespassers. I pulled out my phone, called for help. Answered some questions. "No, Ma'am." I said into the phone. "He hasn't moved at all. Not a lick. I hollared, raged my horn. Nothing."
It took twenty-five minutes for the Sheriff to arrive. Forty for an ambulance. While I waited with my arms leaning on the metal bar of the fence, I watched the leaves tumble off that tall oak. Perhaps it wasn't laughing. It might have been a hiss. It was a fine house. Well constructed. The angles matched. The wood gleamed. They'd poured white concrete for the driveway. Out here everyone had gravel driveways but they'd laid down a fine strip of that fancy footing. The shrubs were small, but well-trimmed against the side of the house. Mulch. The expensive, colored kind. Laid on thick. This man and his wife had worked hard, day after day, to carve out their life from the wildness that threatened to overgrow everything out here in the country. He'd swung his hammer, revved his smoking saw against the bunching trunks and reaching limbs. His fingers were splayed out on the driveway, curled against the heating concrete. A few inches from his fingers, a green and wiry weed had sprouted up through a joint between slabs. Maybe he'd reached down to snatch up that wild growth. He never reached it. I wondered if any of us ever could.