Death of the Hired Man

My first meeting with Steve, some twelve or thirteen years ago, was not exactly auspicious. I was out in my front yard one afternoon when he wandered up and, apropos of nothing, offered his services. He was thin to the point of gaunt, had long and greasy hair framing a haggard-looking face, an unkempt beard of biblical length, and was wearing tattered, filthy clothes. Missing at least half his front teeth, he spoke with a high-pitched, nasally, somewhat grating voice that was hard to understand. Without a moment’s hesitation I said Thanks but no thanks, and sent him on his way. With this curt dismissal a flicker of disappointment crossed his face, but I reckoned he got that reaction a lot and was probably used to it.

The next time I saw Steve, a couple years later, he was in the company of a guy I had hired regularly for labor-type gigs, a fellow by the name of Mark. I had hired Mark yet again, this time to clean up my garage, which was overflowing with junk. Mark introduced Steve as his brother, and said he was there to help out. I was a little irked by Steve’s inclusion because I did not want to pay two guys for work that could be done by one. Sensing my displeasure, Mark said something like, “Don’t worry, he’s a good worker. We’ll get it done twice as fast.” I saw the logic in this and relented. I had recognized Steve right away, but it was a few moments before I put two and two together. Mark’s last name happened to be Steve, and if this guy was his brother that would make him . . . Steve Steve. Suppressing a laugh, I asked Steve if that was, in fact his name. With an air of weary resignation, as though he had answered that question many times before, he said, “yeah, I guess my folks thought they’d play a little joke on me.”

Once or twice a quarter, Steve would wander by and ask if I had any work, and often as not I would have some menial task I was happy to hand off to him. He charged next to nothing, basically just beer and cigarette money, and delegating these rather unpleasant tasks gave me some precious free time. I continued to use his brother Mark for the heavy lifting, though, engaging him in progressively more complicated tasks. Mark had a background in construction and was a pretty good go-to guy for general contracting type work.

Mark was deep into a minor remodel of my house when I noticed certain things had gone missing: several pneumatic tools, a reciprocating saw, a large jar containing at least a couple hundred dollars in change, my secret stash of weed. It was pretty clear that Mark had to be responsible. It was also equally clear that Mark was either a complete idiot or had developed some kind of drug problem for him to think that these items would not be missed. I was leaning toward the latter explanation because I had noticed a recent deterioration in the quality of his work. On a hunch, I called the pawn shop across the street from where Mark lived and asked if he had pawned anything recently, and described a couple of the missing items. I could tell by the way the fellow immediately clammed up that Mark had done precisely that. I confronted Mark and he protested, unconvincingly, his innocence. I reported the thefts to the police (minus the weed, of course,) told them where I thought they could find the stuff, and sure enough, was able to recover almost everything. I never saw Mark again.

Not long after, Steve showed up at my front door. You’ve got some nerve, I thought. But Steve had come by with a purpose. He was there to proclaim that he had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the thefts committed by Mark, and to condemn him for having done me a serious wrong. “I hope,” he said, “you’ll give me a chance to show you that I’m not my brother.” He had a point, I had to concede, because when you get right down to it, it’s simply wrong to hold a man responsible for the transgressions of another. And so I decided to give Steve the benefit of the doubt.

Steve turned out to be a pretty good general fix-it guy. He would tackle absolutely any task, fearlessly and with almost manic energy. Yard work, fencing, painting, carpentry, rockwork, whatever. When he was on his game he could mow a yard in 15 minutes flat. Great, I thought. More free time for me. Sometimes he drank a bit and his work became a little wobbly, and so I would have to get after him, not too harshly, but firmly enough that it got his attention.

When one of my dogs died suddenly a few years ago, I was so heartbroken I could barely lift the shovel to bury him. As if by magic, Steve showed up to help. Addled by grief, I had stubbornly attacked the hard, dry earth with spade alone, making little progress. Patiently, Steve showed me the right way: Strike with the pick, loosen the soil, come in after with a shovel. Repeat. Simple, practical knowledge derived from a lifetime of toil. Between us we managed to get the awful job done mercifully quickly. When I offered to pay him he turned me down, and said that helping out at a time like that was the least he could do.

In mathematics, by convention two terms placed next to each other in an equation are multiplied together. If two terms of the same value are multiplied, they are said to be squared. For example, n times n is equal to n squared. Thus when it came time to enter Steve’s cell number in my phone list, I recorded him as “Steve Squared.” I once shared my little joke with Steve but he did not seem to get it.

At his best, Steve was only semi-reliable. He would come around when he needed money and then disappear for a few weeks. A couple of times over the years, he went missing for several months, and I guessed, correctly, that he had ended up in the slammer for some minor offense or another. Eventually, he would come back around, make a crack or two about having been a guest at an extended-stay facility, and that would be that. Despite his shortcomings, I came to depend on Steve because he usually got a great deal done in a short amount of time.

Although our culture does not have a formal caste system, it might just as well have, so formidable have the barriers to social mobility become. For guys like Steve, way down there on the bottom rungs of society, life is a pretty hard slog from which there is little hope of escape. You compete with illegal aliens, sex offenders, and convicted felons for scraps. You are hounded by the law, disrespected, ignored, and neglected. You are targeted by an endless array of corporate predators, who use every sleazy trick in the book to deprive you of what little you have. If you screw up even a little, you can expect to end up in jail. If by dint of hard work or good fortune you manage to succeed financially, you will still always be thought of as the goat roper or wetback or cedar chopper you once were. The strain of a hard life showed on Steve, who always looked a good ten years older than his age, even after he cut his hair and shaved off his beard.

The last time Steve worked for me he accidentally mowed down a pecan sapling that had been planted a couple months earlier in my back yard. I was a mildly annoyed because Steve had originally planted the thing at my direction and should have remembered. When he came by to collect payment, I mentioned his mistake. Embarrassed, he promised to make it good with another pecan sapling he had been saving for planting. Sure enough, a day or two later I came home to find the promised sapling, plus the one he had mowed down, planted and watered. The one sapling looked pretty viable, but I thought there was no way that the damaged one would ever sprout.

I saw Steve a few days after that, when he came by the house to pick up his lawnmower. He seemed really happy. He owned up that he had just found an exceptionally good arrowhead in the creek bed behind my house. He showed it to me, a good-sized, nearly undamaged spear point; a definite keeper. Steve had gotten seriously into collecting Indian artifacts, and Williamson Creek was turning out to be an excellent hunting ground. He mentioned another site he was looking forward to digging, but the name did not ring a bell so I promptly forgot it.

About 10 days later, I got an early morning call from my girlfriend. “Have you checked your email?” she asked. I had not. “Well I sent you a link to an article in the online American Statesman.” With a little trepidation, I opened the article to find that a fellow named Steve Steve had been identified as the person who died in an incident on April 2. That morning, a couple of guys had gone digging for artifacts on a tract owned by the city but closed to the general public. They were surprised by game wardens. Steve ran off and somehow, so the story went, had fallen off a 60-foot cliff and gotten killed. The story had broken the week before, and so I was familiar with it. I remember thinking at the time that something didn’t sound right; people don’t just run off cliffs to their deaths in broad daylight. That impression was reinforced when I learned that Steve’s companion, who had been arrested, was being held on bail that was absurdly high for a class B misdemeanor, as though authorities did not want him free to tell his side of the story.

With supreme condescension, comments to the online article made harsh fun of Steve’s name, manner of death, and social standing. There were snide references to trailer parks and inbreeding. White trash, who cares, was the unmistakeable subtext. Not one person expressed the slightest concern that a man had died, under questionable circumstances no less.

When we learn that someone we know has died suddenly, the response is always the same: shock, disbelief, denial. We experience a kind of cognitive dissonance, as though our recollection of that person being alive somehow precludes the possibility of their dying. The news of Steve’s death hit me like a hammer blow, and for a few minutes I just sat there, stunned and mute. I had seen Steve just a few hours before the fatal incident. Illogically, I thought, well maybe there’s another 58-year old guy named Steve Steve in south Austin who collected Indian artifacts.

A few days later, Steve’s brother Ernest called me to give me the news, not realizing that I already knew. He called from Steve’s phone, so when I saw “Steve Squared” incoming, for a second or two I hoped it had all been a misunderstanding. But it had not. When I told Ernest that I already knew, he seemed surprised and asked me how I had heard, so I told him. Ernest said that the whole thing sounded really fishy, and revealed that the Texas Rangers had gotten involved in the investigation, a pretty good indicator that someone with some pull had felt the same way.

The cynical part of me, and unfortunately that’s a pretty large part, suspects that even if the Rangers do find something incriminating, they’ll just smooth it over, sweep it under the rug, make it go away. They’ll do as cops always do when one of their own gets into a jam: close ranks, stonewall, and lie. Steve didn’t get an even break in life and he probably won’t get one in death either.

The saplings that Steve planted are blooming nicely now, even, improbably, the one that got mowed down and replanted. I suppose that for a time I’ll be reminded of Steve every time I look in their direction. Inevitably, though, his memory will fade, and the day will come when I look upon them and do not remember.