Flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. Thing is, this isn’t actually fiction. I listened to this song a lot – like, a lot – at the same period in my life when this particular incident happened. Though it was small, minuscule in the scheme of things, I was reminded of it when I heard it again and it seemed somehow fitting. I’ve never written about this in a very good way, and I’m not sure that I’m doing so now, but recently it’s been bothering me. I hope I am respectful.
I was twenty the first and only time I ever saw a dead person properly, the kind of dead person that surprises you. The deceased nestling in their caskets with folded hands and careful makeup are not that – they are props to direct one’s sadness at.
The kind of dead person I saw was on the street, not in a funeral home surrounded by weeping relatives. Ice frosted his eyes and coated his lips in a way that was fungal and aggressive.
He was homeless, or had been homeless, and I remember the way he sprawled on the sidewalk, imagining how he must have pitched forward as he died. Maybe he clutched at a passerby’s pant leg, the hem of a coat. “Kérlek,” he would have said. Please.
It was the coldest winter Hungary had seen in twenty years, the kind of cold that froze deep to the center of your bones no matter how many layers you wore. I was striding down the street in boots, lined jeans, two coats, two scarves wound round my face until only my eyes appeared in the space under my hat, and the breaths I took into my lungs were sharp and short, the air freezing my throat. I was in a good mood. I was going to my girlfriend’s house where we would watch cooking shows with steaming cups of tea, snuggled under blankets in the drafty creaking splendour of a high-ceilinged apartment older than my country. It was minus twenty-five degrees outside.
Then I saw him, less than four blocks from my apartment. The snow was already drifting around his body. I would like to say that I could see the footsteps of previous passerby diverting around him, but this may be a literary exaggeration. There was certainly no one helping, not that there was help to be had.
He was curled on his left side, pitched away from the meagre protection of a buttressed wall. His left hand curled out from under him like a frozen plea for help, and the fingers were blue and dusted with snow.
My brain, for a minute, tried to convince me he was alive.
“Bocsánat,” I said out loud. There was a woman passing on the other side of the street buried deep in an enormous fur hat and coat and she looked up and I gestured helplessly.
She picked her way across the snowy street and came to stand beside me. We looked at the small sadness at our feet. I didn’t know what to say. I felt alone and lost in this land where I wasn’t understood, these words clunking blocks on my tongue. I tried to explain. All I could say was “bocsánat, bocsánat,” repeatedly, gesturing. Sorry, sorry. “I don’t speak good Hungarian,” I finally managed. “You can call? Police? Help?”
This woman, she was at least fifty. She shrugged at me and pulled out a mobile phone, punched in some numbers. She started speaking loudly, rapid-fire, gesturing. I could follow none of it. “Bocsánat,” I whispered one more time, to her or to him I wasn’t quite sure, and then I walked away.