I saw him first a few days ago, up on the flat roof of the classroom building, shoveling heavy white stones into something—a bucket, a wheelbarrow? I couldn’t see. What struck me immediately was that there may not be another way to get all those stones cleared from the roof, and, after all, they must be cleared because a whole new floor is going up atop the classroom building, major construction that has turned the front yard of the old campus into a fenced-in construction zone. It’s an awful job, but someone had to do it.
He was wearing a cut-off sweatshirt, whose sleeves he’d ripped out into looping ovals that stretched nearly to his waist. His arms were thick, muscular. But what he was up to was tedious, backbreaking work, a job some boss assigns to a rookie way down on the totem pole. Pure grunt work.
I know the man, sort of—or of him at least. I remember his being a student here himself, although I never had him in class. I know his life hasn’t been easy, but I don’t know the whole story. Since college, he’d married, then divorced. Occasionally, I see him church with a couple of unruly kids.
Anyway, there he was, way up-top the campus, all by himself, scooping gravel. It wasn’t hot and wasn’t cold that day exactly, but he seemed to me to have the world’s worst job, shoveling heavy stones into a wheelbarrow, one scoop at a time, noisily—very, very noisily.
Nighthawks used to nest up there in those stones, I was once told—nighthawks, thin birds just a size or two bigger than a killdeer who make a habit of diving from the sky in a way that creates a strange whirring purr you hear from somewhere just over your head. Sort of odd, almost scary. No more, I guess. This guy, this former student, was up there cleaning up the stones they nested in.
I saw the guy up there the next day too, heard him. Always the sound—the screech of stone on metal, the crash of stones into the maw of the wheelbarrow. All by himself again. I think he lives right up the street somewhere.
What he was doing—and who he was—haunted me that day, on the way to class and back, almost turned me into Isaiah or Ezekiel. I thought I could put that guy to work as a moral lesson for my students, who sometimes seem so woefully unprepared for life in this vale of tears. Half of them, probably, didn’t bother with their assignments; maybe two or three were really prepared. Up there on the roof, all by himself, in a September sun, a man who was one of them not that many years ago, all alone, filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with a couple tons of heavy, white stones—that’s a story I could tell them. Let’s step outside and listen just for a minute. Don’t stare.
But I’m no Old Testament prophet. Still, the juxtaposition was horrifying, stayed with me through the next day. When I came back to school from lunch, he was up there again, all by himself.
This morning, in the darkness, I rode my bike to the gym for a workout, did my thing on the weights and the machines, then, wet with sweat, got back on the bike, angled around a few corners, and came out on the old front street, where, once again, the thought of having seen him up there three days in a row, all by himself, shovel in hand, haunted me.
And then I heard it in the darkness—the shriek of stones against the metal and the crack of rocks into the belly of the wheelbarrow. Yesterday morning, it was pitch dark, but he was up there already. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there.
The rest of world was silent, an hour before dawn.
It may well be a blessing he has a job at all. He has kids to feed, to raise.
He was up there in the darkness shoveling stones.
That’s all I know of a story that scares me.
What I’m saying is, it was dark as night, and the guy was up there all alone, still shoveling those white stones.