The man was not old, but weathered, like a well-used hammer.
He had come into the office of the concrete plant where I worked to buy sand for a project "back to the house.”
He dug the money for his purchase out of a ragged leather wallet that he must have bought when Ike was still in office. I think some of the money had been in there that long, too.
"How much?" he asked.
I put down the book I had been reading. I have forgotten the title, but it was about human evolution. The volume lay open on the computer console in front of me.
On the page, a row of skulls stared vacantly outward, with the cranium belonging to the oldest member of the human family on one side, and modern man’s vaulted white dome on the other, with assorted way stops lined up between.
It was one of those rainy days, late in the Georgia summer, when business was slow, and there was time to talk, to do things at an idle pace. We weren’t busy anyway; several days of rain had turned the Georgia clay into something like pudding. I had sent most of the drivers home.
I looked up the price of that particular grade of sand, added the tax and gave him the total. He counted out the exact amount, digging in his bib overalls for the change. He leaned against the doorframe and lit up a cigarette.
"Wet," he noted.
"Yeah," I replied, "not much going on.”
He was as dry as beef jerky, impervious to the rain. The daylight pouring in through the office window wrapped around him in the same way that lamplight embraces wood that has been carved into shape and oiled.
His eyes drifted to the book, the skulls looking back from the page like the portraits of family members in an old home.
"That there about evolution?" he asked, giving the first letter the sound of a long "e.”
Uh, oh, I thought, nodding in assent.
"You believe in that there?”
"Yessir, I do," I answered. "Do you?”
"Surely do not," he said, new steel rising in his voice. "I believe unto the Lord, and unto His Word.”
I was a little more than halfway through my university study, and a little bit more than half arrogant. I knew things. I believed in things that I could see and feel and smell.
"Look here," I said. "You see those pictures there. Those are skulls, real ones. A long time ago there was meat on those skulls, and brains in them. Something or someone lived in there, do you believe that?’
"Yessir, I believe that. They’re real, all right.”
I stood and picked up the book, excited. Perhaps I was going to make a convert. Perhaps, having stepped into the swampy world of Religion vs. Science, I may have managed to win an argument.
I pointed out to him what little I thought I knew for certain regarding the evolution of human and pre-human anatomy. I talked about progressively larger brain cavities, different jaw structures, flatter faces, flipping pages in the book as I spoke. I felt flushed with power.
"So, can’t you see that there seems to be a definite progression in these, from the oldest to the modern?”
He agreed that it seemed to be so.
"Do not you agree, then, that these creatures were real, and that they may possibly have been our ancestors?”
"No sir, I can’t accept that," he said, the gray light from outside enhancing the lines and angles of his craggy face. "They are not ours.”
He took a long drag off his cigarette. The smoke hung around his head, something else obscuring the air between us.
"Well, if they are not our forebears," I said, a little exasperated, "who are they? What are these bones?”
"They are the bones of fallen angels," he said.
The air rushed out of my lungs, the way it does when one unexpectedly steps waist-deep into frigid water.
I think about that man now and then, with his measuring eyes and his hard hands. Sometimes I see him in my mind as clearly as I saw him in that doorway all those years ago.
I think about him sometimes when I am plodding my way through court records, preparing to cover the trials of accused rapists, child molesters, murderers and drug dealers.
We are influenced by thousands of unseen forces, my educated mind tells me. We are the products of our environment, of our heritage, social and genetic. We create our own Hells.
The man in the doorway stares forever through smoke. "I believe unto The Lord, and unto His Word," he says.
Like anyone else, I want the world to make sense. Things can be explained, dissected, explored, named. Give me a thing I can name, and the name will make most of the fear disappear like smoke.
I say this sometimes with the assurance of the man in the doorway, a man worn by toil and as set in his convictions as a post in the ground.
And sometimes I say it with the shrill bravado of a small boy whistling his way through a dark graveyard.
Usually, reason wins. But now and then I find myself in an interview across a table from someone who seems made of wood, shaped from something no longer living, dead in some sense that goes beyond sensibility.
In times like those, I sometimes see him again, drawing fire to his mouth, speaking through smoke, to a world where angels could fall bereft of God to crash into the cold stones of the world, and I wonder which one of us has found the best answer.
T..W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.