I saw the man before he died, under the front tire of my father’s truck.
He was pinned and the truck stalled and then settled in the mud and three
grown men were not enough to push the truck forward or backward to stop
the man’s pain. I was not a grown man. I was a girl, fourteen, puny, under a
hundred pounds, not useful to their efforts, so I crouched by the man under
the tire and tried to distract him from his fate.
We were on our way, me and my father, to a junkyard in Applebox, to
abandon a couch, an old refrigerator and four mattresses, leftovers from my
mother’s life; we didn’t need the things anymore now that we had the money
from her death.
“Worst time of the year for driving with loads,” my father said before we
got stuck; he liked to throw out comments that turned into prophesies. He
was right this time about the loads, about the time of year: April, when the
snow ran down in liquid form from the Appalachians, turned front roads into
concrete river beds and back roads into mud.
In the truck I talked about woodworking.
“What do you know about that?”
“I’m reading a book,” I told him. He shook his head to end the talk. We
sat in silence until we passed another truck stuck in the mud, with two men
struggling to dig it out. We couldn’t stop, said my father, couldn’t risk the
break in momentum. So we kept going and their eyes followed us, a hundred,
two hundred feet and then we hit the bog, and we lost it, tires spinning, truck
jerking, rear end sliding, load tipping, a moment of freedom, a spurt. We
burst around the corner and then we hit him, the young man standing by the
edge of the road. We hit him and rolled over him, and he sank and we sank.
The men from the other truck came running to us; they must have heard
the scream. We were outside looking down at the victim when they—one
man, older, heavy, gray beard to add merit to his weight, and a younger man,
maybe his son—stopped when they saw what we’d hit. They were stoic,
taciturn men, speaking in gestures and long stares instead of words. I saw the
words coming through their eyes, their stiff bodies as they stopped a few feet
from us: why didn’t you stop to help us? And my father’s response, stoic in return,
remorse kept hidden for the sake of his pride. Still, the young man under the
tire helped us struggle out of the moment, his screams turning to moans.
“He was just standing on the side, waiting,” I said, looking at each man,
willing them to forget, to move on.
“Back tires are stuck in the mud, can’t move it,” said my father. They
nodded and moved to the back of the truck.
“Katie, put the truck in gear and step on the gas,” said my father, and the
two men looked at the man under the tire as a piece of wood, an inanimate
dilemma. I started to climb into the truck.
“Extra weight,” said the older man, shaking his head at me. “Don’t wanna
put extra weight on the fella, bad enough.” Another pause, a new problem.
My father wanted to argue but he held back, closed his mouth.
“Put it in neutral,” he said and I did it. I leaned in over the seat, slipped
the gear and pulled back out without shifting any of my weight inside. I
stepped around to the back to help but they left no space for me. I moved
toward the man. No one had said a word to the man under the tire.
Dead road, no other cars, us on the way to the dump, these men I didn’t
know. I crouched down, looked at the man under the tire, really, for the first
time. He’d stopped screaming and his moans came out as whispers.
“What were you doing there?” I said, instead of comfort, instead of
finding something to set him at ease, choosing to satisfy my needs. He didn’t
speak. He turned his head. The tire sat square on his stomach, the softest
spot. He wore a thick black coat, flattened; the tire, I thought, probably
crushing every organ, digging down, trying to make contact with the spine.
The back of his head touched the edge of the metal wheel well; when he
lifted it, he came within an inch of the tire. When he turned, he looked like
a man bothered by someone disrupting his sleep. He was older than me but
younger than the others.
When he turned I could see the strain from the hard breaths. His face
was terrible, depressing, hopeless, horrifying. I wished I’d seen my mother
with his face, in this state, in some state. I hadn’t seen her at all. Here and
then gone. The nurses wouldn’t let me see her, as if they knew what was best.
Stoic like the men behind the truck, dressed in white like wolves undercover,
faces attempting compassion for the sake of their roles, telling me with their
lines that she was not in a state to see anyone, that her appearance would only
make things worse for others.
The frame rocked, the tires moved, an inch forward, up, and then down;
each time the truck stopped, the tire settled and a heavier groan pushed out
of his mouth—the last air, I thought. Each time the last air.
“They’re going to move it,” I said. “And then we’ll get you to a hospital.” Every few seconds the frame rocked again.
His jeans were old, worn, four rips I counted, frayed to nothing at the
bottoms, next to the brown boots, brown socks. I saw his coat again, dark
blue patches blended in with the color, a frayed red and green flannel leaking
out the base of his waist. All his clothes were beat, like he’d pulled them off a
dead man rotting in the woods, like the clothes marked him in a line of bearers
of these fabrics, and I imagined another man, the next man, desperate, taking
anything, pulling the shirt and pants and coat from this man and staggering
away to his own fated end and I looked away, my mind wandering as it did, as
was my habit—something to get over, said my father.
“Hey,” I said.
His head was back, under the tire, head touching the black, rust-stripped
His eyes didn’t open. I grabbed his left hand, pressed my warmth into
him and his eyes moved, fluttered as if he were dreaming.
“C’mon!” My father’s voice directed at the sky.
“Hey!” I spoke in quick thrusts, choppy whispers. I squeezed his hand.
“Do you want to see my breasts?”
His head turned. His eyes opened.
I’d gone from an A to a C in the last eight months. Many of the boys
wanted to see my breasts, my tits, jugs, I didn’t know which word was best.
Breasts, I thought. The dictionary term.
We were on a mud road, middle of nowhere and I looked around before I
unzipped my coat, reached in, unhooked my bra, let it fall, then tucked it into
my coat pocket. I lifted my sweatshirt and the T-shirt underneath. He looked.
I don’t know what he saw: part of my head behind layers of coat and shirt,
two cups of concentrated flesh slightly dangling. He looked for a moment and
then closed his eyes, let his head fall back against the metal. I leaned forward,
grabbed his hand and placed it on my chest, let the shirts fall over our hands—
held it there while the grunts sounded behind us, while the truck rocked.
They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t dislodge the tires with their strength.
The two men couldn’t push with their truck because their truck was stuck,
still stuck, because of us.
“Honey! We’re going to try to free their truck, use it here!” my father
shouted—maybe saw the outline of me, never looked at the man, the boy
and the placement of his hand—and ran off with the stoic men. I should
have stepped on the gas earlier, a moment of pain for salvation. I heard their
footsteps, rapid, fading away, and I knew it was too late. I leaned in.
His face was dirty, two-, three-day growth on his cheeks, neck, bare in
most other spots. His hair was long, black, straight and oily, dipping into the mud beneath. I kissed him. Like touching my lips to the damp earth, salt and
“I’m sorry,” I told him. I turned his head, spoke into his mouth. “I wanted to see you. I wanted to see you, however you were.”
His eyes opened. I saw the green, spotted, dirty if eyes could be. My eyes
adjusted to the near contact.
“I must be a fucking sight,” he whispered and cleared his throat. “Ugly
I lowered my forehead, touching his. “You’re not.”
I set his hand on the ground, pulled myself up and looked around,
moved to the back of the truck, looked at their progress, deep grooves in
the mud, pockets of stone, bare road for grip. I ran forward and jumped into
the driver’s side. I’d learned how to shift, add the pressure, flip into reverse
at the right moment, rock it back and forth. My father said I was too young.
My mother showed me how to do it. Age meant nothing to her—just another
rule to ignore, like crossing only on green.
The window was down. The engine was loud on the revs, the shifts, but
I thought I heard the gasps each time the truck settled back into the center.
I tried to block them out. I shifted, stepped on the gas, felt the roll, shifted,
stepped on the gas, a little more, a little more—he’s still alive, still alive—
shifted, rocked, shifted—they’ll never get back in time. It moved, almost,
shift, gas, shift, gas. The truck climbed, grabbed the hump, settled back then
struggled to grab again, lifted, reached.
Suddenly, the truck climbed over. The tire hit the space of air and then
thud, it settled on the mud. Nothing beneath. I jumped out and saw them
from the corner of my eye, arriving breathless as I landed, slipped, and fell
forward in the mud.
And we froze, all four of us, as our eyes locked on what lay under the
His face did not accuse us, did not blame us. I crawled forward on my
knees, reached out and wiped the sweat from his brow. The trees, the forest
creatures, the air, the men—all silent, all waiting. And that’s when I saw it,
through his closed eyes, in his thin, upturned lips, in his nostrils gently flared
as though inhaling the perfect memory: One moment of freedom. One
moment of ecstasy.
They didn’t see it, weren’t looking for it. At some point they’d lost the
I remembered forever both expressions. His: what it meant to be newly
alive. And theirs: what it meant to be simply waiting.