His name is Gary. He is 70 or so. He is a big man and tall, 6 feet 2 or 3. He is a lively conversationist and politically concerned and long in town. He walks with a cane.
* * *
I don’t know what drew me to that saloon last night.
It’s not a hangout. The memory’s fond of the one time I’d been there with friends at Halloween. It’s a popular saloon, the only one with a balcony overlooking lush historic Courthouse Square. Best seat on Whiskey Row!
I’ve already had my fun this evening. I’m walking home. I don’t feel like going home. I don’t know what drew me to the saloon that night. The hour, I think. Only 9:15.
I just don’t feel like going home. I backtrack and follow the steep wooden staircase up to one of the town’s oldest and infamous saloons.
The room is just as you’d imagine of an old Western saloon well maintained. Thick wood and mirrors and spacious seating. Must be the hour and day. Not so much action on a Wednesday night.
As I survey the seats at the bar to read my newspapers, I hear my name called. Who? What? Then waving signals. Don! From the workplace. I’m stunned. I really am! I never come here and to bump into someone I know, what are the odds?!
They insist I join them at their table. Don, his wife and Gary, their tall friend.
* * *
We drink — I whiskey sours as Don insists I may have whatever I desire! We talk of many things, Don and I notably. Everything said is in confidence and not to leave the saloon.
In his pressed long-sleeved white shirt and bow tie, the barkeep strikes a strapping handsome character out of an old West movie. A charming gentleman serving with attentive genteel warmth in a charming saloon.
The hour tells Don, who works in the morning, that it’s time to go. Gary the tall man leads our parade. I, Don and his wife follow.
* * *
The staircase is steep and narrow with rails that even the most agile might be inclined to use. A most wonderful night is coming to a close and goodbyes under way.
In a flash, all changes. Horror swells. Gary is tumbling down the long staircase.
* * *
“This can’t be happening.” A flash of denial born of shock. It is happened. He is lying at the bottom of the stairs. On his back. His long legs flat up the stairs.
I bolt down followed by Don. Others have heard the crash and hasten calling 911.
He is conscious – thank god. And in shock. His eyes are glazed, staring at nothing. He cannot register what is happened. I immediately spring to his side to hold his left hand. To comfort him, soothe and help him stay conscious. I tell him my name again.
“Gary, I’m here. And you know your friend Don?”
“He’s here too. We’re all going to help you.”
I won’t let go of his hand cradled in mine. Blood trickles from his mouth down the left side of his face that is turned slightly my direction. The loss is already evident inside his mouth lined with blood. He lost three front teeth in the fall.
I am going to be sick. Not then. Now as his fall returns in vividness.
* * *
At the time, I’m cool as a cucumber. Efficient. Comforting. Practical. I’ve very often said that I could be a paramedic. I’m very good in a crisis. I keep my wits and head about me. Panic does not intervene. I recognize the scene in overview and the immediate needs specifically. You do what needs to be done. Then later perhaps you cry or vomit. The crying, for me, comes later.
* * *
Gary’s big hand is in mine, loose, limp. Blood runs from an unseen wound on the left side of his head and eye. A wet white restaurant towel is handed over. I apply it gently first to the blood from his mouth. “Close your eyes,” I say as I press gingerly on the blood from his eye. He obliges but does not speak.
A big man who is a fallen man is vulnerable. He is helpless. Like a child needing help from others capable of providing it. A man suddenly appears out of nowhere and kneels alongside me at Gary’s head. A passerby perhaps? He says he is a former emergency technician or paramedic or something, I don’t remember. He keeps Gary’s head still and stable.
As more people gather, I rise, back away and watch alongside Don, linking my arm in his for support. “You can go home,” he says. “No. No.” Strong affirmation that I am staying and will stay until the old tall man is safe on a stretcher en route to a truck en route to the hospital.
A team of paramedics — 4 or 5? — arrives. “He’s a big man,” says one, noting legs draped up the stairs.
I listen and watch as they do their job, efficiently, practiced. They ask the fallen man questions like “what year is it” and “when were you born.” He answers. A good sign. And some relief.
They ask questions of his friend Don. How much had he had to drink. About his health and physical conditions. Don, a cool and composed man by nature, responds clearly. “That’s his cane over there,” he says, pointing to the walking aid in the corner. A paramedic hands it to Don, who says he is accompanying his injured fried to the hospital.
* * *
“What should we do with these?” someone asks. In his hand are three fully intact teeth. “Save them,” I insist without hesitating. “Save them.” They are put into a baggie and handed to Don.
I am keenly touched and made ill in the heart and stomach. I know all about teeth. I’ve lost teeth. And so it has been since childhood and still it goes. I know more about teeth in this one lifetime than most know in 10. Bad teeth are the genetic cross I bear. I am heartsick absolutely heartsick for Gary whose three front teeth are gone in a fall.
* * *
On a count, he is lifted onto the wheeled stretcher. I know now that he is safe. I don’t remember what I say to Don in farewell. He walks the steep staircase back up to his wife, who has abided instructions to remain on the top landing.
I step back into the street that two hours earlier was still, quiet and lit only by soft street lamps, bar signage and a feast of Christmas lights adorning the Courthouse Square and small forest surrounding.
Now lights from emergency vehicles punctuate. I walk the three or so blocks home, crying, sobbing, the whole way. Questions awash my brain. Why must we live only to die? Why must we meet and endure tragedy. Why must life be hard, cruel, unreal even. The sight of an old strapping man half conscious with blood dripping down his face I cannot shake; perhaps it can never be shaken.
One moment, we were all talking and laughing in dynamic conversation. The next moment, he is tumbling hard down a staircase and lying helpless on his back on the bottom. “His cane slipped on a step, said Don. “He should have taken the elevator.” Or maybe he said “I don’t know why he didn’t take the elevator.” I don’t recall. Things get blurred in the urgency of a crisis.
* * *
The hour, about 1 a.m., is not late — about two more hours until bedtime. But it feels extraordinarily so. My sobbing and hard questions of God and Life subside. I try to induce normalcy by watching Netflix. Fucking Silverlight plug-in failing to work again. An hour later I finally get it going. I see for the emotions that it might be a long night of insomnia. I swallow a sleeping pill so that won’t happen. It works.
* * *
Those moments when good cheer among friends give way abruptly and with no sign of what’s about to come are the hardest to explain or forget. I remember Gary’s face across the round table lit up, engaged, lively in conversation. I remember, from a short time following, his face pale, eyes unfocused, the blood, swelling around the left eye, three teeth found on a staircase and bagged.
I prayed for Gary a lot last night. I prayed for him through my sobs on the way home. I pray for him now. He is in the hospital, safe. He has a friend, Don, who will go see him. More friends too, I am sure.
His name is Gary. He is 70 or so. He is a big man and tall, 6 feet 2 or 3. And today, he is like a child, vulnerable. I wish that I could hold his hand in mine.