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“I saw the fat man die.”

March 13, 2013

Well, I did not win the CBC short-story contest. Not that I thought I would. This little story was too much a one-person narrative for that. But it was a fun to write nevertheless…

I Saw the Fat Man Die

         Regarding what happened on my street corner that summer day I really don’t know what to tell you – it’s now a bit hard to say. I’d love to be able to tell you that I acted like a hero, or that because of what happened I gleaned a keen slice of wisdom. But I wasn’t. And I didn’t. It just happened. And I was there.

         I was cycling up Broadview, gliding through an uncluttered and luxurious August afternoon sweet and magnificent, when, – how do I say this? (How do I not offend?) I saw the fat man die. The man stumbles and falls and dies. Right there! Dead! It’s true! Lucienne Boyer was singing in my ears – and I was dreaming of 1930’s Paris; on my way to meet my girlfriend on the Champs Elysees. I was swimming through the great coral reefs of red and yellow that shine down on me from Toronto’s east Chinatown facades. And although dark clouds could be seen slowly drifting in from the north-west, beyond the park, across the valley, the very sight of their dark soul filled me with all the wonderful expectations that a hot afternoon thunderstorm can bring. If you listened, beyond the whitenoise of traffic and cell phones and streetcar chimes, you could catch the occasional faint far-off rumble of thunder. “It will make her smile” I think to myself. Then I catch a glimpse. Was it an arm? I turn my head and see a hand in mid-spasm; from an arm shooting out awkwardly from the crowd. Instinctively I follow the outstretched arm up to a face, contorted – and for a brief second I stare into the depths of a strange and frightened look of bewilderment. I watch transfixed, as in quick succession, the great man’s internal machinery seizes up, and he clutches at his chest, and then he buckles, and folds, and falls to the pavement like paper.

          Everyone gasps in surprise, jerks away. Women clutch their bags to their chests in horror and hastily scurry on past. Everyone scattering at the shadow of the hawk.

          The fat man rolls to his back – like a great beached fish – and his hands and legs clutch and flail, remembering some forgotten habit of grasping indiscriminately into the air – he is again a newborn baby, reaching into the empty.

          Somehow today I act bigger than my otherwise mediocre life. I want to be a hero at play in the fields of the Lord. I jump from my bike and look down into a face that does not see me; eyes already waxing. “What’s your name?” I ask as I wail and flail on this man I do not know, blowing air into wet lips, feeling the cement tearing at my knees. Flashes of memory now follow me to my sleep. Of dirty white socks and cheap plastic flip-flops. Middle forties. Maybe the same age as me. “Hey” I yell at him. “Stay with me.” I see the metallic-blue-glaze of oil atop the curbside runoff, flashing psychedelic as it trickled toward the grate, wrapping itself around crushed red grapes as it goes. A rotting peach. A puff of fruit flies. Cigarette stubs. This close to the ground exhaust fumes hover thick and stick to my tongue like cheap paste. A raindrop hits the cement beside me.

          I once saw two drunks get into a fight on Yonge Street. I stood and I watched as the one man was dropped by a punch straight to the mouth. I was dumbfounded. It was all over in seconds. The man was face down, his right arm twisted and bent, his open palm facing the sky.

          “There’s nothing you could do” the fireman says to me. “No one wanted to help him,” I say blankly. “I was going to see my girlfriend.” She’s waiting for me on the hill; anticipating the arrival of thunder and hot summer rain. Sweet olive skin in the dappled shadows of honey. She is waiting for me. By the side of the café. Waiting for me!

          But then the fat man died.

          I hammer and I pound long after I know – after I feel – the lights go out. The fireman said there was nothing more I could have done. I pick up my bike. Where was I going?

          Someone pokes at my back. A bony finger digs in under my right shoulder blade. “Ta see lee! Ta see lee!” What is that? What is she saying? I turn on the woman’s voice and see deep brown crevices wrapped in a red bandana. Narrow eyes. A face carved by the sun. Wisps of grey flutter feebly against the bandana’s scarlet edges. The old woman was eighty years old. Maybe more.

          “Ta see lee! Ta see lee!”

          “What ‘ta see lee’?” I yell at her.

          “Ahk” she says, dismissing me with a wave. “You never see dead before.” And without another thought she turned and disappeared into the milling crowd and I was left alone to stand there, and watch her go.


         I was invincible once. I could move mountains. Have you ever made love in a hot and humid thunderstorm? Clinging desperately, with the lightning hissing and the thunder exploding all around you!

         I was invincible once.

         Standing perfectly still in a field of wild green grass, my eyes closed…waiting for it…waiting, for that surge that flashes up my spine when a dozen horses run closely past, frolicking with me on a warm and windy early-autumn day. The ground shaking under my feet. The wet smell of shredded grass on the horse’s hot breath. Nuzzled close, against my neck. Sharing whispers with God.

          “Ahk! You never see dead before!”

          One cold January evening we took in a stray cat we found moaning and shivering under our front porch. She died that very same night from rotting still-born kittens not aborted. She nearly ripped herself apart in her agony. I had never heard such sounds screamed in the night. My eight-year-old daughter stayed up with that cat, and together they cried through the night. Inconsolable.

          Does that count?

          The old Chinese woman knew the fat man was dead. And maybe I knew it too. But this is the west, and so I had kept on pounding, until someone with the authority to do so, told me to stop.

          “Would you like to pray?” I feel a hand placed on my shoulder. It is firm. Warm. Soft.  

          “No. No thanks.” I turn away from the offer.

          Prayer. When have I last prayed? 

          The rain starts up, thundering in over the treetops in the park. It washes over me. Warm. Heavy. From across the street I watch a homeless man share his mango with a bag lady on a bus-stop bench. Their heads are wrapped in plastic bags. Toothless smiles in the rain. I push my bike up the hill.

          I see her standing outside the café.

          Under her umbrella.

          In her grey boots.

         She came to me offering fidelity and courage and purity, and I am still wholly disarmed. She had undressed for me in the dappled shadows of the young birch trees. In the middle of the wide open field. She came to me speaking of Daphne and Apollo. She looks up and smiles as I cross the Avenue. Gives me the slightest of curtsies. Turns her face to the rain. She has an honesty that is exceedingly rare.

         “Ahk! You never see dead before!”

         She was so extravagantly beautiful I wanted to cry.

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