It was the summer after I quit minor-league ball. (“Quit” is a relative term. My arm was not up to the task.) Working on the county road crew, driving around in the same orange truck all day with the windows rolled down. Every day was incredibly hot. We filled in potholes and loaded bloated deer in the bed of the truck, flung raccoon carcasses deep into the woods with our shovels. The guy I worked with was twenty years older than I was and never said a word. He’d just stop the truck and nod backwards and I’d wake up, walk back, and figure out if something needed to be filled, loaded, or flung. In the heat of the day we would stop at a creek and he’d fish. Anything he caught he would slap against the rocks and toss back in, not considering if he had done enough to kill it.
Once a week we cleaned the park bathrooms. Or I would while he smoked in the truck or at a picnic table. A couple months after I started we were in Elmhurst Park, out near the fairgrounds, and I carried the rolls of toilet paper, plastic bags, paper-dispenser keys, broom, paper towels, and air freshener into the bathroom, and promptly dropped them as I saw that a man had shot himself, with a shotgun. Only his legs, and the non-barrel end of the gun, were poking out from one of the stalls. On the wall, directly in front of the stall opening, in green marker, was written “IF THESE” but the thought was not finished. I wanted to ask the coroner, later, if the man had a marker on him, but it didn’t seem appropriate.
Outside, I stood next to the open window of the truck. Out of habit my hands went for my pockets, and I realized how badly they were shaking. He did not notice me as he smoked and stared straight ahead though I was six inches away. Finally I said, “Willy,” and he gave a start, looked frightened for a moment, and followed me to the bathroom, where I pointed inside. He was in there for no more than a few seconds, came out, lit a cigarette, then looked at me and said, “Third one.” I later learned that this was not an entirely unusual event. When he finished his cigarette he walked to the truck and radioed it in, and we sat at a picnic table and waited.
Outside of funerals and hospitals I’ve seen six dead bodies in my life. I believe this to be a high number. Once I drove by a car accident just as it happened and saw a woman crushed in her seat. My friend Brian Wilkes fell dead of a heart attack during a league game at a bowling alley. Twice I walked by and saw old folks peacefully dead: one on a porch and one at a bus stop. And in my second season in college I went in to talk to my pitching coach and he was just sitting there at his desk, cold. I spoke to him for five minutes, worried that his silence meant he was taking me out of the rotation.
Whether I have been lucky, unlucky, or am just more observant than most people I don’t know. But this one at the park has stuck with me. It is the only one that comes to me when I wish it wouldn’t.
We only stopped working long enough to allow two police cruisers and an ambulance to arrive, and I gave a statement to the police. At the next park we ate lunch at the tables, I at one and Willy at the other because his family joined him each week when we cleaned the park bathrooms. They talked and laughed, I am not sure if Willy mentioned anything to them. Willy used to kiss his son goodbye on the lips, though his son was too old for this. His son was a fat boy who used to snort. He probably still lives around here.
That afternoon we went fishing as usual. When Willy caught a bass, he unhooked it and gripped it by the tail, raised it up. Somewhere I found it within myself to speak, and said, “Willy, don’t,” and he stopped. He looked up at it, then at the water, shrugged, and tossed it to me. I caught it with a snap of my wrist, pushing it away rather than gathering it into myself, like a lazy line drive, and placed it in the water.
I realize I have never told this story before. Yes, the part about the man whom I found dead, many times, but not the part about the fish. I look back on this with pride. It was a situation I believe myself to have properly handled.
Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives