The Man Who Fell from the Sky
by Margaret Coel
The narrow dirt road clung to the mountainside between the granite peaks jutting overhead and the drop off into the valley. Ponderosas, scrub brush and scruffy undergrowth looked fat and green after the spring rain, greener than Alan Fergus remembered the Wind River range ever looking. It was the fourth Friday in May. The foliage wouldn't turn gray and dusty until the summer heat set in. Tommy had been locked down in a class room about as long as any twelve-year-old boy could stand and, since Tommy had a day off from school, they had made plans for a fishing trip. He and the boy rose early, the blue-black sky striped in red and pink and white, eaten what Alan called a hearty breakfast, oatmeal that would stick to their ribs, and spent an hour in the garage packing up the fishing gear. Quiet, quiet, he had reminded the boy. Don't wake Mom. Let her sleep in for once. Usually Sarah was the first one up. A good hot breakfast on the kitchen table before she and Alan drove to the body shop and Tommy ran the half block to catch the school bus.
It had taken some work to convince Eton to come in early and handle the front counter until Sarah arrived. All the cajoling and promises of extra time off next week had been worth it. A perfect day to escape, father and son, man-to-man. Tommy, almost grown now, getting so tall. They hadn't taken enough special times together, and before he knew it, Tommy would be gone. Off to some college, most likely. Maybe Laramie. He was a good student. A little restless, but what boy wasn't restless? He had been restless, and his father had taken him to Frye Lake to fish, and it had made all the difference. Sucked the restless, fidgety parts right out of him. Alan had backed out of the driveway this morning as the white-hot sun burst like the after glow of fireworks in the eastern sky.
Tommy seemed pleased with the change in routine. Bouncing on the seat to whatever music blasted in his ear phones, gawking this way and that, pointing out a hawk that lay flat out in the sky, guessing how many trout they would bag today. A dozen, two dozen. Our limit, for sure.
Yeah, our limit, Alan agreed.
The road narrowed as it started into a curve. Alan kept the pickup as close to the middle as he dared. The edge could be moist and soft. Theirs wouldn't be the first pickup to slide down the mountainside. He drove slowly, in and out of wide stripes of shadows, and listened for an oncoming vehicle. If he listened hard, his dad had taught him, he would hear a vehicle before he saw it. Although he wasn't sure what he would do. Slam on the brake and back up, search frantically for a wider place in the road in which to pull over.
"Keep your fingers crossed," he said as he plunged into the curve.
"Keep my fingers crossed?"
"That the fish are biting. Should be hungry with the rain. Seen the lake yet?"
Tommy leaned toward the windshield and stared past the drop off, eager eyes searching for a glimpse of shimmering blue water. The wide curve straightened into a narrow brown road that glowed in the sunlight.
"There it is." The boy's excitement was contagious. First sight of the fishing hole was always exciting, filled with expectations and promises. Tommy tapped the windshield. "Down there. We're getting close."
Alan stole a sideways look. Bull Lake spread below, meandering through the valley, reflections of ponderosas dancing on the blue surface. Another couple of curves, and the road would empty into a long straight shot down to the lake. They'd be there in ten minutes.
"Looks like another fisherman."
"Really? So early in the season?" Alan had been counting on having the lake all to themselves. Nobody else to worry about, no thumping music and portable grills, makeshift picnic tables, lawn chairs and kids running around, hollering and scaring off the fish. Through an alley between the trees, he spotted the truck parked close to the narrow strip of land where he was planning to stop. He swallowed back the disappointment. There was a good shelf there they could wade onto and cast into deep water where the fish were usually biting. The shelf disappeared on either side of the truck, but if he drove past, he might be able to pick it up again. Part of the fun of fishing for Tommy was the wading, the walking into the water, as if he were walking on the water.
Alan took the last couple of curves, listening for an oncoming vehicle, and headed down onto the straight road that cut through willows and tangled brush along the lake front. He could see the truck parked ahead, a grayish monster with an extended cab and a metal box in the back. It was nosed toward the lake, water lapping the shore a few feet away. The tailgate stuck out into the road, and Alan had to slow to a crawl to get around it without slipping into the willows.
"Dad! He's in the water."
Alan worked his way around the truck before looking back. My God! A large body--a man's body, bobbing in the water on the far side of the truck. He let the pickup roll a little farther ahead, wanting to spare Tommy another view of the dead man. "I'll go have a look." The pickup jerked to a stop. "Stay here, you understand?"
The boy looked scared, as if he might start crying. He nodded slowly, but he didn't say anything.
Alan got out and slammed the door. The sound reverberated in the crisp, clear air. He glanced back as he made his way through the marshy undergrowth toward the body. Tommy was up on his knees, looking out the rear window, eyes as big as black marbles. He couldn't save the boy from everything. Not from this view of death.
The body rolled and swayed face down in the water, the back of a dark blue padded vest bulging, arms outstretched, as if the dead man might be attempting to float. The blue jeans looked like heavy weights pulling the legs down. There was an odd feeling of acceptance that clung to the body, as if the man had walked onto the shelf, stumbled and been unable to get up, so he had settled in and waited for death. Clumps of black hair lifted off a pinkish scalp dotted with black freckles and moles. Alan reached down, then pulled his hand away. What sense did it make to turn the body over? The man was dead, and the look of his face would only burn itself into Alan's retinas. Besides, whatever might have happened, no investigator would appreciate his tampering with the body. He looked around, realizing he may have already interfered by walking over here.
He hurried back to the pickup, punching at his cell, willing it to come to life. No service. No service. The boy was still on his knees looking out the back window when Alan slid behind the steering wheel. He turned the ignition and drove forward. There were camping spaces on the other side of the road ahead where he could turn around.
"We're leaving him?"
"I'm afraid he's dead, son. There's nothing we can do for him. We have to report this."
"You think he came up here to fish and fell into the water?"
"I don't know." Alan was thinking he hadn't seen any fishing poles or tackle box in the truck bed.
He took a right toward a camping space and maneuvered the pickup through several tight turns until they were headed back toward the body and the truck hanging over the road. No telling how far he would have to drive up the mountain before the cell phone tapped into a tower somewhere. He looked sideways at Tommy who was still fighting back tears.
"I'll make it up to you, son."
"I don't ever want to come here again," the boy said.