This is the first of three linked stories, “The Red River Trilogy.” Check back tomorrow for the second story. Copyright is held by the author.
THE SETTING sun was placed perfectly in the narrow band that remained between a low, grey layer of clouds and the flat horizon. It shone obliquely with a rosé pastel light, gleaming on the wet street, 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 quickly. 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 stared 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 was 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 carefully. 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 a native man, in his late 40s or so. Raindrops fell on his 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?
A tall black man with a grey beard helped us as we struggled to move the barely conscious 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; created artfully like blown glass by an unlikely 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. A few people gathered then, peering into the sandwich shop, where one of the police officers 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 knew Sharon – they were both doctors. Sharon was retired. We all shook hands after the police officer told us an ambulance was on the way. I left first, feeling both elated and guilty. Elated because I had actually 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, who wore a faded red Detroit hockey sweater — number 44 — shifted his weight uncomfortably and said nothing. He was short and broad-shouldered; almost absurdly so. He stared at the man for almost a minute, his gaze steady, but even so I sensed he was confused.
The whine of an ambulance echoed up the avenue, working its way from the East in the gathering darkness.
The speaker continued, a little louder: “You reap what you sow!”
“Well, then it could’ve just as easy been you,” the painter replied evenly, looking the other in the eye, his chin tilted up. Only when the speaker 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.
A few streetlights flickered on as I stood watching him. 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 felt I belonged here. I wondered if I had in some way earned a credit or maybe — more like — 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 grey and dun overcoats — a bright fall leaf on the muddy current.