THE SETTING SUN shone as if held in place by hand. It sent a band of light down the narrow slot that remained between a low layer of clouds and the flat horizon. The pastel light fell at an oblique angle, gleaming on the wet street, the car roofs, and the windows of buildings.
I walked home from class, the sun at my back. Traffic was brisk and the sidewalk was clogged with weary pedestrians, most carrying bags or packages. The people looked straight ahead and walked with purpose. I was an exception, my eyes scanning theirs as they walked toward me.
“That’s how you tell the country people from the city people,” one of my U of W classmates had commented as we had walked home a few weeks ago. “Country people make eye contact.”
I was alone today, though, and it was cold and wet. I hurried, lengthening my stride and looking ahead only to plot a course, rather than to catch anyone’s eye.
As I approached a busy intersection, I could see a crowd congregated at the corner. I slowed as I came to the bottleneck, straining to see what was causing the delay. A few car horns sounded and a long line of cars, blinkers flashing, had strung out in the right turn lane on Colony Street. They waited to turn west onto Portage Avenue, but something blocked their way.
When the light changed, many of those in the front walked out onto the curb lane of Portage to get around whatever was obstructing the cars. The knot of people caused an oncoming city bus to brake hard, making a metallic grating noise, as if upset by the intrusion.
As I came up to the cross street, I could see a man lying, one foot up on the sidewalk and his head on the pavement. He was wearing a dark tweed car coat and Adidas track pants. A brown glove was on one hand and the other was bare. The missing glove, I noticed, was on the far sidewalk. His face was slit open from the edge of his mouth to the underside of his cheekbone, below the eye.
I stared down at him, stunned by the severity of the cut. People were starting to push by me from behind. I leaned back against this human current, setting my book bag down beside his foot like an anchor. I could not take my eyes off the slack flap of skin and the whitish, puffy edge of the wound. It was like a fish, partly filleted. His cheek moved in and out with each breath and black, dried blood caked the front of his coat. His head lolled sideways. The driver of a Buick Riviera – his car’s bumper a few feet from the injured man’s head – opened his door and stood, an elbow resting on the car roof. He seemed annoyed.
I looked up and across the street. An older woman with a coat the same ashy colour as the fallen man’s reached down and picked up his glove. Staring at her, I thought, country people. She looked back at me and I motioned for her to come to us.
She hurried across the street and looked up at the Riviera driver. “Excuse me, sir,” she called to him. “Would you please help us get this poor man off the street?”
“I can’t just leave my vehicle,” he called back.
A young woman beside me said, “I will,” her voice clear.
“Thank you, dear,” the older lady said to her. Then she looked at me. “You lift his arms and she and I will lift the legs.” Before we began, she bent down to put the brown glove into the fallen man’s coat pocket. After tucking it in securely, she said, “I’m Sharon,” and looked up at the younger woman.
“Abigail,” the woman replied, squatting down to grasp his foot. I stepped behind his shoulders, then glanced at the two women, who looked at me, waiting.
“Matt,” I said, nodding to each of them. The people behind them stared past me, their eyes flickering at me just for a second when I said my name.
“Support his head, Matt,” Sharon said, enunciating with care. Then she cleared her throat, took a big breath, and said, “Lift him ‘on three’ and we’ll carry him in there.” She motioned with her head to the Subway restaurant next to us.
I looked down at him as we prepared. He was First Nations, in his late forties or so. “Of noble birth,” as one of my cow-tipping friends from home liked to say, thinking he was clever. Raindrops fell on the fallen man’s face. His eyes were half open, and he moaned in a low voice just as the traffic noise paused when the light changed. As in a dream, I thought I heard: Where, here quiet, awaits my guardian angel? Wo weilest du? i
A tall black man with a gray beard helped us as we struggled to move the unresponsive man inside. Jostling against the door as we entered, the bell jangled several times.
While we carried him, I wondered about this stranger who lay hurt on the damp street in that strange light just before sunset. I imagined him getting out of bed in the morning for coffee and toast – just like most of the people who walked by him that day. Just another day at work or school? I wondered. Maybe it was his day off? He did not look like he lived on the street – nor did he look wealthy, or to tell the truth, much above the poverty line. I did not know. It would be hard to get a wound like his back in my hometown – of that I was certain.
It was also certain that he had no foreknowledge that strangers would carry him to safety later in the day. It was like the amaranthine light that afternoon: strange, rare, and stirring; artfully created like blown glass by an incongruent combination of forces.
We got him inside just as a Winnipeg Police cruiser pulled up and parked with two wheels on the sidewalk, the turret light revolving and swathing faces momentarily in red. People gathered, peering into the sandwich shop, where one of the policemen began attending to the injured man. The other cop stood on the street, talking into a radio mic that stretched out from the cruiser window on a curly cord. I could see his breath as he spoke on the radio, his head in a halo of glare from the oncoming headlights and the last horizontal rays of sunlight.
I stayed for a few minutes in the shop. It smelled like fresh bread inside – familiar and reassuring. It turned out that the tall man with the beard knew Sharon – they were both doctors. Sharon was retired. We all shook hands after the policeman told us an ambulance was on the way. I left first, feeling both elated and guilty. Elated because I had stopped – it was not in my shy nature. Guilty because I was feeling proud; I thought, I should be sad, or concerned, or angry. It was like the times I played well but my team lost – selfish feelings.
Outside again, I felt the cold in my throat as I took a breath. The street was oddly quiet, like after a chime has rung and you think you still hear it but you are not sure. I picked up my bag and heard a bystander say, “Must have been some fight.” I looked at him and he was talking to another man, who carried a gallon can of paint. It was “Robin Breast” by Sherwin-Williams. The painter or whatever he was wore a faded red Detroit hockey sweater – number 44. He sized up the man who had spoken and shifted his weight, appearing troubled. He said nothing but I thought he soon would. The painter was short and broad-shouldered; almost absurdly so. He stared at the other man for almost a minute, his gaze steady. I sensed he was confused by what the loudmouth had said, and how he had said it.
The whine of an ambulance echoed up the avenue, working its way from the east in the gathering darkness.
The loudmouth continued, a little bolder, “You reap what you sow!”
“Well, then it could’ve just as easy been you,” the painter replied without emotion, looking him in the eye, his chin tilted up. Only when the other looked away did the short man glance at me – irises dark amber, lashes curving. He pushed his shoulders back just then and reached over to touch my arm lightly, whispering, “I seen you. You did good.” Then he looked away and abruptly swung his paint can back from his body and pivoted around it to begin crossing the wide avenue. His feet hardly moved and he changed direction as if rolling on casters.
A few streetlights flickered on as I stood watching him. I felt warm, standing in the crowd of jacketed men and women on the sidewalk. Looking down Portage Avenue, I saw how beautiful it was; the tops of buildings catching the last light; the whitish car exhaust lending a Gaussian softening – blurring the headlights and the fluorescence from office windows and storefronts. The sidewalks were alive with people; undulating as one, roiling in eddies and coursing along beside the street.
I had a sense that I belonged here. I wondered if I had in some way earned a credit or maybe someone else had spent one on my behalf.
Then the animated walk symbol flashed white and the little painter man was carried away in a surge of gray and dun overcoats – a bright fall leaf on the muddy current.
i “Encountered on the Shore”, Page 3: Cf. Eliot, The Waste Land Line 34 Where do you linger?
Mitchell Toews lives and writes at Jessica Lake in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.
Mitch’s writing has appeared in CommuterLit, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Red Fez, SickLit, Voices Journal, The Machinery, Storgy, Alsina, The MOON Magazine, WORK Literary Magazine, and Rhubarb Magazine. Details at his website, mitchellaneous.com.