A plumber died in the trenches. The red earth caved, made a sucking sound as the cold clay swallowed his knees and then the topsoil cascaded in a sigh. In that first second of his boots sinking, he thought about wet socks. When the ground viced his chest, he imagined the mess he’d make of his laundry room. In that last second of seeing the sun set past five o’clock, soil stinging his nostrils, he calculated how long it would take to dig out the rough-in lines. He felt them push into his heels. He knew he’d be the last to touch them for days. And then the sun was gone.

The plumbers screamed like women, and the women living in the subdivision slid their drapes, called 911. Two roofers hot-wired the landscapers’ backhoes, punched at the controls, circled the fresh divot too close and clanged buckets. The tradesmen heard the clang, spilled from their half-built houses: three painters, a Spanish-speaking sanding crew, one framer. They scratched at the earth bare-handed, stabbed with hammers and extension poles. They dug like children aiming for China.

The builder arrived later, parked his hatchback, loosened his tie, gripped a clipboard and cell phone.

Ambulances and fire trucks flashed into the cul-de-sac. Shovels were distributed, the backhoes ordered cut so as not to scoop buried scalp. An hour passed before they found the first pale flash of flesh. Floodlights cut through the dusk, poured over the men, who were brown smears of dirt. It was fingers they found first. One of the plumbers jumped into the hole and grabbed the hand, pulled, grit his teeth, but the earth wouldn’t budge. Inside his pocket, the builder squeezed the sharp teeth of his car keys.

A lone officer circled the pit with yellow tape, as if mapping buried gas lines. The sky was black before they reached the plumber’s ankles. Two sanders buttressed his limp body while the roofers dug out his legs. They plucked his body free. The men dispersed into darkness. Under the floodlights, set into clay, the plumber’s boots remained.

Paramedics placed him on the gurney, the white sheet streaked in red earth. The workers circled the ambulance. One of the painters passed out cigarettes, and they all smoked silently. No one offered the builder one. No one had ever seen him smoke.

The workers flicked their butts into the pit then washed the city’s shovels under someone’s spigot. They lined them against a fire truck. They locked their houses and went home. The builder stayed, stared at his empty clipboard until a fireman snapped off the floodlights then drove away without sirens. The builder climbed into the pit, tugged at the empty boots, but they wouldn’t give.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Dustin Hoffman
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