In our early 20s, my wife and I didn’t have any money or real jobs. We were going to college and doing day labor in Nacogdoches. What we didn’t have was a house we owned. The one we were living in rented for very little, but it had some drawbacks. One was an outhouse. The outhouse was a favorite hangout for snakes so big they looked as if they belonged in a Tarzan movie, not to mention spiders large enough to wear multi-legged pants. Every trip to the privy became worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. Another drawback was no inside water. There was a pump to a well outside and a water hose, but stripping off and taking a bath with the hose in freezing weather was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. Our heat was firewood I chopped to burn in two large fireplaces. There was a small electric heater that whined like a small child and might have blown up had we tried to warm a marshmallow in front of it.
So we wouldn’t starve, we decided to move to Starrville, where my parents lived, and stay with them while we worked and Karen went to school part-time at Tyler Junior College. So in my oil-guzzling old Ford and Karen’s truck, we headed out, like two leftover Joads from The Grapes of Wrath, and went north to Starrville, which is about the size of a postage stamp. Actually, we ended up on its outskirts, so we can’t claim actual residence there.
I had given up on my university degree and decided I wanted to be a farmer. Part of this was a love for the idea and the fact I had grown up in the country around this sort of thing. My parents generally raised a garden and a few hogs and chickens, so I had experience. It was a sincere lifestyle we thought might get us through until I could write stories and novels, which was what I really wanted to do, and until Karen could get her degree in criminology-sociology, and perhaps go about harassing or rehabilitating criminals, depending on the criminal.
Neither of us saw our back-to-the-land venture as a lifetime job, but something we could enjoy in our youth, a means to an end. So we moved, and it was nice not to put out $30 a month for rent. This was the 1970s; for us, $30 was a lot of money. We had my parents’ land to raise a large garden, plus a truck crop patch for vegetables to sell, and out back we had room for hogs, mules, goats and a chicken house. We bought a mule, and I learned to plow. I bought all kinds of old equipment and went to work. My parents moved into town, probably due to our presence, and we took over the place temporarily.
The first year was successful. We were living off about $4,000, a small sum even for that time. Everything we ate, we raised. We bought only wheat berries, sugar, salt, animal feed, and a few other odds and ends. We ground the wheat berries, made our own bread and sold vegetables from the garden for an occasional splurge in Tyler on a movie or an outing at a cheap Mexican restaurant. It was pretty much a daylight-to-dark job. I didn’t write as much as I thought. I kept telling myself I would. Eventually.
The second summer brought dry weather and not as much food. My wife went to work loading packages of meat into refrigerated cars, the contents to be delivered to convenience stores, and I got a job working the rose fields. There I worked with other poor folk. When winter came, there was less work, so fewer of us were kept on. I was glad to be among those kept for rose-digging time. They dug the roses with a machine, and we tossed them into trucks that hauled them to be loaded into refrigeration cars. The roses, fresh from the ground and dangling lots of wet dirt, were heavy, cumbersome and prickly. It was a job that, once started, had to be finished, so we were literally working day and night, sometimes loading roses by spotlight.
One night after work, the wind shifted, and the rain thumped our roof like a thug with a cat-o’-nine-tails. When I went outside for a look, the porch light made everything look like something Noah might have spied from the poop deck of the ark. Lots of water. When morning came, the storm was gone and the high water had drained out, but the ground was wet and icy, and the sky was the color of pearl.
My boss lived close by, and it became his ritual during rose-digging to pick me up at my house and drive me to and from the fields. On this morning, we crossed a little bridge, and as we did, we both spied off to our right, down on the creek bank, a large box. My boss said, “I think that’s a toolbox.” He pulled over, and we went down for a look. Sure enough, it was a toolbox, the kind that goes in the back of a pickup. As if on command, we turned our heads and glanced under the bridge. On the other side, we could see a pickup with its nose in the creek. We went over and discovered that not only was there a truck, but there was a man behind the wheel. He was swollen from the water, and his flesh looked puffy and soft, like bread dough. He reminded me of a horror version of the Pillsbury Doughboy, his eyes swollen shut, his lips like two fat, dark worms. My boss said, “I think I know him.”
We decided that most likely, he had driven across the bridge when the water was high and had been swept into the creek. We drove to a phone (no cell phones then) and called authorities. That night, I dreamed of that poor man, and the thing that came to me was not only is life short, but quit screwing around; our time is brief, and nothing is promised. It’s what you do now that matters, not what you do tomorrow or what you think you will do tomorrow.
We finished the rose field job as the weather turned worse, and for three months I didn’t have a job. My wife, always my greatest supporter, insisted she continue working and that I should write until the end of the year, when the weather broke. I think she knew how bad I wanted to do it, and how mortal I felt after the discovery of that dead man. I set to work, and since I didn’t know what I was doing, I wrote a short story a day for 90 days. I sent them out, one after another, and they sent them back. There were a lot of markets then. Eventually I collected around a thousand rejects on those 90 stories. But I felt I was in the game, and learning.
We abandoned our farming venture, moved back to Nacogdoches. I got a janitor job at the university, and my wife got her degree. My job started midafternoon, so in the mornings I wrote, and when I got off work, I wrote or read for another hour or two. Gradually, I began to sell a lot of stories and novels, and went full-time as a writer and a house dad.
I think I would have written eventually. I had already sold a few articles. But when I saw the Drowned Man, I realized that if I wasn’t careful, I could end up working my life away, always planning on writing and never seriously pursuing it; that at the end of my life, I might end up with a fraction of the work I could have done, writing now and then while doing a job I didn’t really like.
It was a sad way of finding my eureka moment, but here I am, more than 35 years later, and instead of the smattering of stories I might have written, the Drowned Man pushed me forward, gave me will and placed the cold hand of mortality on my shoulder. I’ve become comfortable with it resting there. I think of it as a gentle reminder not to waste my time on Earth—and not only with the writing, but with family, with all the things that matter.
I know it’s odd, and I don’t even know the poor man’s name. But in a strange way, I owe him a lot.
Originally published in The Texas Observer.