The builder sat in the glassless hole where a stained glass window would be. His battered boots dangled out over the twilit shadow of a backhoe, its mouth wedged in the end of a long scar in the red clay. The steel framework of the top floor stood at attention around him and waited stoically for its stone skin while rust patiently glazed it with a velvet patina. He felt a breeze picking up and tilted his face skyward. The wind frustrated him with a parable whispered in some dead language he almost understood.
"I'm not in this story," he muttered.
Earlier he visited his grandmother.
He never knows what he will find when he makes the drive out of the city: maybe a gnarled paintbrush and coffee can full of wood stain for the rotting front porch; his cousin, down from Kentucky with her new baby, looking tired and worn as if she got far less than she bargained for from her marriage; or maybe a longer ride farther north to pick his uncle's corn and learn how to use an air compressor to pluck the stubborn silks from between the clean rows of kernels.
This morning he climbed into his grandmother's Impala. It reeked of arthritis cream and menthol cough drops, but he drove her forty-three minutes west. "To visit with Greg and Holly because their father Roy may die," his grandmother said. He had only met Greg and Holly and Roy once at his uncle's church. He vaguely remembered them as cousins from somewhere on his grandfather's side of the family, and maybe Roy was a preacher.
When they pulled up to the low brick house he counted twelve cars parked on the front pasture as if a giant toddler had left them there. His grandmother suggested that, "Roy may have already passed," but when they went inside they discovered Roy was still alive, sort of, on a hospital bed set up in the front room.
Holly fussed with the white sheet, smoothing the wrinkles into soft folds. Against the bright sheet the skin on Roy's arms was gray and fragile like the paper of a wasp's nest. Roy almost looked as if he was sleeping--his head back, mouth wide, a stuttering snore in his throat when he breathed--his body even jerked occasionally like the old preacher was having a nightmare. But Roy wasn't inside that sleeping body, he was sitting on the piano bench across the room, looking at the red-eyed family gathered around him with tissues in their hands, and he was wondering why they were so sad.
Roy had someplace to go...soon, but they kept calling his name, asking if he could hear them. Of course he could hear them. He heard them better than he had in years, and he didn't even have his hearing aid in. Beyond their voices though, he caught something else, a sound like the touch of morning mist rising through pine needles, telling him it was almost time to go.
But his family kept him. Greg leaned over the body in the bed and said in his hunting voice, "Dad, can you see those black and white dogs out there in the field. You need to call them in. Here, Dad, let's call them. I'll whistle," and Greg let loose a piercing whistle that would have called a hundred dogs home, then he broke into sobs.
Roy touched his boy's shoulder and looked around at the family. He told them it was OK, that he needed to go, but they couldn't hear him. Roy searched the room for some way to get them to hear, and he spotted the thin man slouching against the doorframe looking at him. Roy remembered meeting him at the church a while back...a second grand-cousin by marriage. He was in construction...a carpenter maybe, someone who built things. Roy remembered thinking that the man had the mark of the pulpit on him, but had wandered into the wilderness in search of an answer no one held.
Was the builder really looking at him? Roy walked toward him, and the man straightened up. Roy stopped where he was and said, "tell them it's OK, but I have to go now. He's calling me in."
The builder nodded.
The old body on the bed twitched, thin fingers spread as if grasping a secret, then even that last movement faded like the sun setting on a cloudy day.
Fresh silence yawned in their faces. The builder said nothing. He slipped outside and lit a cigarette, smoking by himself until his grandmother found him and said she was ready to go.
Back in his empty window, the builder let the memory scuttle to the back of his mind to play with the other broken riddles. It hadn't helped him figure out what to do with the book full of torn pages in his head. He pitched a bent nail toward the fading horizon and watched it twirl until he lost sight of it. He looked into the breeze and listened as it grumbled by his ears, whispering of lost sheep.