I slammed on the brakes and came to a hard stop in the middle of Chick Springs Road. I was sweating from four miles of semi-hiking through some park trails. My iPod was blaring through the factory car speakers, I had a bottle of Gatorade in my hand, and I was only thinking about how good a shower would feel.
I pay precious little attention to the road when I’m driving alone. Without my wife or kid in the car to give me something to protect, I drive just safely enough to make sure I’m not going to kill anybody on a sidewalk. So, there was no reason I should’ve spotted the huge section of tree trunk rolling down a hill and into the middle of the curvy road.
It must have been a huge tree that the team of Hispanic workers was cutting down in the old section of Greenville. The section that barreled down the hill was two feet in length and nearly the same in diameter. It just missed the tail of an Orkin truck when the trunk launched out of a ditch and onto the asphalt. Only instinct and luck kept me from running into it and the frantic guy who ran down the hill after it.
In a split second, I knew what the guy was thinking. Like many of his brethren around here, he was likely undocumented and just trying to make enough money to send back to his family in Mexico, Honduras, or Colombia. If he let a giant piece of tree trunk slam into the side of a Lexus, or worse, a kid on his way to Stone Lake pool, there would be questions to be answered. Cops would arrive. There might be an investigation. It never ends well.
And there he was, immediately in front of me and wildly chasing a giant rolling piece of wood. He looked up to the grill of my vehicle and held up a hand as if to say, “Please stop while I get this out of your way.” It was as if he had completely ignored the fact that I was already stopped and screaming, “Watch out!”
He had caught the tree trunk as it straddled the double-yellow dividing line. He wasn’t going to be able to pick it up. That much was obvious. He was going to have to roll it. He probably was thinking about that as he looked at me. There was probably the slightest bit of relief that he hadn’t hit my car. He was bent over with his head turned toward me and not toward the Terminix truck that had just rounded the corner, oblivious.
I only had time to scream “Watch out!” once. In that second, my head did a half-second of geometry. The guy’s head was hanging over the dividing line and directly in line with the bumper of the Terminix truck.
As mentioned here many times before, I’ve seen a lot of dead people. That said, I’ve never actually—in person—seen anyone killed. The closest I came was watching a guy die. I was the second person to roll up on a guy who seconds previous had been crossing a street with a case of beer in his arms. He didn’t see the SUV coming. The beer exploded everywhere. The guy died in a twisted mess under the front bumper of the SUV.
The Hispanic guy bent over in the middle of Chick Springs Road didn’t know any of this. He was only relieved that, for whatever reason, I’d been paying enough attention to get on the brake without running into the tree trunk.
I don’t know why I didn’t look away. There wasn’t time to process it. I only know that as the words “Watch out!” left my mouth, the Terminix truck skidded to a stop. I don’t know how close he actually came to the worker’s head, but it was close enough for me to think, “That guy just about died and he never would’ve known how or why.”
The worker rolled the tree trunk into the ditch and looked up to the rest of his team on the hill. He smiled as if he had just been caught with his fly down. It seemed even after it was over and I was rolling slowly by, the guy had no idea he was one second from being dead, one second from never being deported, one second from never sending back another penny to his family in Mexico, Honduras, or Colombia.
Today, 24 hours removed the moment, it still makes me wonder. Is it harder to see death the closer it gets?