Today I saw a dead man. He was lying on the cobblestone plaza in front of one of Cuenca's huge white cathedrals, just as the rain was starting to fall. I was running, running to the nearest café without an umbrella when I saw him there, flat on his back, his arms spread beside him. It isn’t uncommon to see men passed out on the street here; they get drunk and sleep it off. But the rain wasn’t waking him up. It picked up and then started to pour, soaking him, soaking the streets and the trees, but still he didn’t move, and then a short man in an old suit and a navy baseball hat came over and tried to lift the man up, pulling on his arm, but he couldn't move him. The man's head slumped back, and I saw the short guy lift the man's limp wrist and hold it in his hand.
The two men beside me in the café were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, watching. At first they were laughing; how drunk can you get in the middle of the day? But then they saw that the short man couldn’t make him move, they saw the way he lifted his head and looked around, the man's wrist in his hand, and so they ran out into the rain, leaving their cigarettes smoking in their ashtray. The three of them struggled with the man’s body, and I could see when they lifted him that his hair was gray and combed back and he wore a dark, elegant suit. His shoes were shined. He was dead weight. The men staggered across the plaza and disappeared into the library across the street. A few minutes later, I heard the sound of a siren screaming, and then the ambulance appeared and the medics jumped out and ran through the library’s open door, while a guard stood watch, a huge gun strapped across his chest.
I wrote an essay at Vermont College about an emergency a little like this one. The essay, which I called 'Siren,' is about the day I was in my apartment in Cambridge, and I saw an ambulance pull up to the curb, and medics rush out and pound up the stairs and then carry down a child, strapped to a stretcher and hooked up to tubes. A woman upstairs screamed, I wrote, while the medics rushed the child out the door and away in the ambulance. A few months ago I submitted the essay to The Boston Review, and today, just a few moments before I saw the dead man, I received a reply. This is what they sent to me:
Thank you for sending us "Siren."
This story was moving and well-written. After careful consideration, we have decided it does not suit the present needs of Boston Review. However, we encourage you to write more and to submit in the future.
Though this submission does not suit our present needs, we look forward to reading more.
I read the note and felt uplifted. This is something, I thought. And then I ran to the café and saw the dead man and I couldn’t watch the ambulance roll him into it and take him away. My submission didn’t suit the Boston Review's present needs. Eerily, it suited instead this moment, this day, this rain and this man in the suit on the ground. The two guys come into the café now, shuddering, and one of them has tears in his eyes.
Go home tonight and hold the person you love. Hold them close and tell them how you feel, because someday, we’re all going to follow that man in the suit. I want my family so bad right now; I want to wrap you up tight in my arms, but I can't, and so I hope you all know that I'm sitting here, so far from home, and thanking God for you. Today I saw an old man lying on the cold street, and I learned that your life can change with a drop of rain.