January 1, 2014

A Body in the Parking Lot

I pulled into the parking lot at the cafe, and there was a body, lying on the wet pavement, in one of the parking spaces.

As I got out, she stirred, and tried to sit up; failed, and lay back down.

I hurried over and asked her if she was all right. Breathing, bleeding, shock, said my Dad's voice, in my head. She mumbled something. I crouched down beside her and took her hand, doing a quick look-over for injuries, for scene-of-accident signs. Nothing. She returned the pressure of my hand normally: not a clutch, but a trusting squeeze.

I couldn't get intelligible speech out of her, though, and she couldn't tell me her name. I asked if she wanted to try to stand up, and she gave it a brief try, but failed. There was alcohol on her breath, but she wasn't reeking. Some more people came by, and I asked them to call 911. While we waited -- a long time, it seemed to me -- she began having gentle spasms, and muttering in distress, murmuring about something about her babies, weeping a little. All the time she held my hand. "You'll be all right, hon," I said.

Other people came along: a young Portlandia couple with open faces. The young woman put her down jacket over her, to warm her. Why hadn't I thought of that? I'm useless, useless in emergencies. Someone came out of the bar to look for her; he knew her name, but not much else. Police showed up, asked some questions, established that an ambulance was a good idea. The spasms faded. The woman, secretively, brought my hand to her mouth and kissed it.

Finally the ambulance, the paramedics: people I have great trust in. I stood up to ease my knees, after all that crouching, and the sweet young woman who'd given her jacket took over the hand holding. The paramedics, brisk and clear, got her name from her, and more information than I'd managed to get in twenty minutes. They brought the rolling stretcher over. "They're going to make you feel better," said the young woman. A moment later I saw the woman surreptitiously kiss her hand, too.

Meanwhile, blood pressure, blood sugar, questions of the guy who had been at the bar. Too little food and too much drink, that was clear. The seizures were something the guy vaguely thought maybe she had before, maybe she took medicine for.

The rolled her away to the ambulance. Everyone dispersed. I went into the bathroom at the cafe, and washed my hands well. I felt a little ashamed of myself for doing so, but I also wished I'd warned the nice young woman to do the same: Hep C is no laughing matter, and the cops and paramedics had of course gloved up at once. I went out, sat down, and got my breakfast.

That's it, that's all the story I know. I did the only thing I really know how to do, which is to convey tenderness and caring with my hands. She'd responded to my touch, as clients sometimes do, like a dry plant to water, and I could not shake the conviction, though I knew it was groundless -- really just what I was predisposed to think -- that the alcohol and not eating enough were her responses to touch starvation.

We don't take care of each other. Half of what's wrong with us human beings, I sometimes think, could be headed off if we just still hunkered down together picking lice, imaginary or real, out of each other's hair, of an evening, the way all the other primates do: just touching each other kindly, huddling close, and tending to each other. Instead we've made a world of artificial light, and images thrown on the walls, that we stagger through alone.