Monday, February 03, 2003

The boy lay on his back on the hood of the little car, his feet in their immaculate tennis shoes just barely touching the ground, a carefully folded two-thousand peseta note clutched in his hand.

He was alive, yes, they could see that. His chest, his very narrow chest was pulling his very narrow belly with it, up and down and up and down they went, so very deeply, he was certainly breathing. But such a deep, narcotic sleep, he couldn't be roused, not with first a voice in the ear, then a poke with the rolled up flyer from the movie they'd just seen up in Gracia. Not even with a gentle slapping of the cheek and finally, with slaps one could hear had force.

He just lay on the hood in curiously natural fashion, as if he were a small child left to nap by parents who were surely close by. It reminded Francis somehow of when his nephew had been little more than a baby, and in the midst of a noisy party, wide awake and smiling, he had been placed on the edge of the sofa to have his shoes changed. In the exact instant of being placed on the sofa, he had fallen deeply asleep, still sitting up. It was so sudden and so profound, so transitionless, Francis had laughed.

The boy on the hood slept like that, as if he didn't quite understand the difference between waking and sleeping, or when or how to do or not do one or the other.

And yet the position was of course most unnatural, surely terribly uncomfortable at the least. He had no needle marks on his arms, his skin was unmarred and pale under the streetlights, so they couldn't know what powerful magic pinned him to the hood of the car, pills or alcohol or another thing altogether. Poor Prometheus, poor St. Sebastian, Francis thought. Something had to be done.

It was Edu who went to look for a payphone to call an ambulance, while Francis stood and watched the boy.

Francis looked at the angular little face, the thin nose rising in the center to a perfect peak, the perfect peak one sees only in dreams, the perfect, symmetric and unreal mountain one draws as a child. His mouth below was narrow, his eyelids above were a pair of hyphens, precise and basic, nothing more than what they absolutely had to be. Thick veins curled and twisted round his arms, the backs of his hands. And his skin -- on his arms, his neck, his face -- was waxen, streetlit purity.

Then there were those tennis shoes. Not new, but kept as if they were, those shoes were so well-tended, there was such a pride apparent in the clean white of them. The shoes gave Francis reassurance -- false, he knew -- that the boy would be all right, they seemed a charm against all the worst possiblities.

Edu returned. The ambulance was on its way, he said. And as soon as he said this, they saw the flash of blue lights.

"So fast!" Edu said. "I can't believe it." Edu was relieved, Francis could see the tension in his face change direction with the shifting of responsibility.

But Francis was not relieved, he was frightened suddenly, the calm of the night broken because the ambulance had come to save the boy who lay so quietly on the hood of the car. Mortality had arrived: a pulse would be taken, needles appear, nameless medical instruments pulled from a bag and used somehow, there would be retching and blood, seizures and violence. He didn't want to see it. The talismanic shoes were no use now.

"What do we have here," the medic said matter of factly, it wasn't a question because she could see well enough. She checked the boy's arms as Edu and Francis had done earlier.

"I don't think there are any needle marks," Edu said.

She tried to rouse the boy, as Edu and Francis had done earlier, but he didn't wake for her either. She took his pulse, and Francis began to feel sick. Behind her, the other medic was tearing into a paper packet, pulling out something small and sharp and antiseptic. They opened the boy's mouth and inserted a strange plastic tube, short, shaped like an apostrophe. Francis felt a breathlessness, a queasiness, and he knew if he wasn't careful, he could faint. Take in air, breathe deeply, he said to himself, as if he rather than the boy were on the hood of the car.

Then the boy jerked awake reflexively, knocking the tube out of his mouth, and suddenly he was standing unsteadily beside the car, his eyes as black and dead and unseeing as spots of ink. There was no retching, no seizure, no blood, but still Francis felt sick, sicker even. The beauty bestowed by that terrible sleep had been replaced with stuporous, incoherent and squinting ugliness. But the boy was alive, standing even, unable to answer the medic -- "Where were you going?" "What did you take, pills or only drink?" "Don't worry, it's okay, you aren't in trouble, we're here to help you" -- but able at least to give her his hand so she could prick a finger for blood.

Francis walked away, sitting on a marble stoop some twenty feet from the group round the boy who had lain on the hood of the car. He lowered his head briefly, and the faintness left him, the nausea, the sweat on the palms of his hands.

After a moment, Edu broke away and came toward him. Francis stood up, collected, ready to walk the remaining blocks to the apartment -- it wasn't far, not really.

"I heard the medic say it was .89 blood alcohol," he told Francis. "That's very high, no?"

Yes, it was impossibly high.

"Do you think," Francis asked, "that could kill you?"

"I don't know, maybe," Edu said.

"I think," Francis said, feeling in his pocket for change, a cigarette, a stick of chewing gum, anything at all, "I think it could."

from a 1998 Barcelona diary

The Swedish word for the day is b-moll. It means B flat minor.

- by Francis S.

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