Short Story


The setting sun shines without diminishing, as if held in place by a giant hand. Pastel light is cast at a low angle, gleaming on the wet street, the car roofs, and the windows of buildings.

I walk home from class, the sun at my back. Traffic is brisk and the sidewalk clogged with weary pedestrians, most carrying bags or packages. The people look straight ahead and walk with purpose. I’m often the exception to this rule, my eyes on theirs as they walk towards me.

“That’s how you tell the country people from the city people,” one of my university classmates commented as we walked home a few weeks ago. “Country people make eye contact.”

Alone today, I hurry, lengthening my stride and looking ahead only to plot a course, rather than to catch anyone’s eye.

As I approach an intersection, I see a crowd congregated. Slowing, I strain to see what is causing the delay. A few horns sound and a long line of cars, blinkers flashing, is strung out in the right turn lane on Colony Street. They wait to merge with the western stream on Portage Avenue, but something blocks their way.

With the change of the traffic light, many of those in the front of the pedestrian crowd walk out onto the westbound curb lane to get around the obstruction. The knot of people cause an oncoming city bus to brake hard. It makes a metallic grating noise, as if upset by their intrusion.

I’m close enough now to see what is wrong. A man is lying with one foot up on the curb, his head on the pavement. He’s wearing a dark tweed car coat and Adidas track pants. A brown glove is on one hand and the other is bare. The missing glove, I notice, is on the far sidewalk. Standing next to him now, I see the man’s face is slit open from the corner of his mouth to the underside of his cheekbone, below the eye.

I stare at him, stunned by the severity of his wound. People push by me from behind. I lean back against this human current, setting my book bag down beside his foot like an anchor. Unable to take my eyes off the slack flaps of skin and the whitish, puffy edge of the cut, my impulse is to run, but I can’t. His torn cheek trembles with each breath and black, dried blood is caked on the front of his coat and his neck. His head has lolled sideways and his eyes are closed.

The driver of a Buick Riviera—the car bumper only a few feet from the injured man’s head—stands beside his car, an arm resting on the roof, fingers drumming on the metal.

I look up to see an older woman across the street reach down and pick up the stray glove. Seeing this, I think, country people. She returns my gaze and I beckon her, calling, “He’s here!”

She hurries towards me and looks at the Riviera driver. “Excuse me, sir. Would you please help us get this poor man off the street?”

“I can’t just leave my vehicle…”

A young woman beside me says, “I can help,” her voice clear.

“Thank you, dear,” the woman says to her. Then she looks at me. “You lift his arms and she and I will lift the legs.” Before we begin, she bends down to put the glove into the fallen man’s pocket. “And don’t dirty your lovely coat, dear” she adds, commenting on the young woman’s coat—obviously new.

“Support his head,” she says to me, enunciating with care. Then she clears her throat, takes a big breath and says, “Lift ‘on three’ and we’ll carry him in there.” She motions with a nod to a sandwich shop behind her.

How gracefully she has taken charge of us, I think.

Raindrops fall on the man’s face. His eyes open as we lift, lids fluttering, and he moans. As in a dream, I hear a low voice: “Where, here quiet, awaits my watcher? Wo weilest du?” I’m confused and look around to see who might have spoken. I don’t speak German, but recognize it as such.

“I’ll get the door,” a thin man with a gray beard and a skull cap says as we struggle to move the injured man inside. Might this man have asked me those strange questions in German? Unlikely, his voice is high and strained. We jostle against the door as we enter and the bell jangles to announce our strange procession.

We get him inside just as a Winnipeg Police cruiser arrives and parks with two wheels up on the sidewalk. The turret light revolves, swathing curious faces in red. A crowd gathers, peering through the windows as one of the police hurries into the shop. The other cop stands on the street, talking into a radio mic that stretches out from the cruiser window on a curly cord. I can see his breath as he speaks on the radio, his head in a halo of glare from the oncoming headlights and the last horizontal rays of the sun.

I linger inside the shop for a moment. It smells like baked bread, familiar and reassuring. Plastic roses in cheap vases decorate the tables, the flowers pale yellow like the victim’s long hair. My bag leans against a fire hydrant and I push through the crowd to retrieve it. The radio policeman shouts to his partner that an ambulance is on the way.

Still mildly nauseated by the sight of the slashed face, I unzip my jacket to the still, cool air. I feel strangely content with myself. Guiltily so. I had stopped—an act not in my shy nature. It seemed selfish to congratulate myself now with the fallen man lying on a restaurant table, unconscious—but I could not help but to at least recognize my response. More than that, I was somehow confident the man would live; that he would recover fully. I was certain.

I scan the sidewalk for the three others who had helped. I want to do something, I don’t know what. Exchange names? What do you do? I look for them but they are gone in the rush-hour throng.

The cold is in my throat as I take a breath. It’s oddly quiet, like after a chime has rung and you think you still hear it but you are not sure. A bystander beside the police car says, “Hate to see the other guy!” He speaks up, almost shouting, as if he is addressing us as a group, like a preacher. I see another man nearby watching him intently. He’s a short fellow who carries a gallon can of paint, slung from one thick finger. He is swarthy and barrel-chested and it strikes me that he clearly is alone despite the closeness of the people around him. The paint label reads “Robin Breast” and he is wearing a faded red Detroit hockey sweater. It’s number 44 and the name Schutzengel is screen printed across his shoulders. He sizes up the man who spoke. As he shifts his weight I wonder if he is a boxer or a gymnast. He seems light on his feet, nimble, despite his muscular torso and the stretch of the hockey jersey tight across his back. Lips moving, Schutzengel glowers at the taller man but says nothing.

The whine of a siren echoes up the wide avenue. It’s the ambulance, working its way through traffic from the east. Darkness gathers around us as the sun has finally set.

The loudmouth continues, a little bolder. “You reap what you sow!”

Several people turn their heads. Faces register disgust, anger. Puzzlement.

“Well, den it coulda chust as easy been you,” Schutzengel replies quietly, without emotion, his chin tilted up. “Chust” he says, his accent betrayed. He shifts the can of paint to his other hand but his eyes do not waver. “Don’t be too quick to judge. Your false pride is a demon that comes to bring you down.” Only when the man turns and walks away does Schutzengel glance at me—irises dark amber, long lashes curving. He takes two steps and reaches over to touch my arm lightly. In a whisper: “I seen you. You did good and he’s gonna be okay, so don’t worry. And don’t feel guilty.” Then he smiles with creased eyes, swings the paint can back from his body and pivots around it, his back to me.

A few streetlights flicker on as I stand watching him. I feel warm, there in the crowd of jacketed strangers on the sidewalk. Looking down Portage Avenue, I see how beautiful it can be; the tops of buildings catch the last of the light; the whitish car exhaust lends an expressionist  softening—blurring headlights and dimming the fluorescent glow from office windows and storefronts. The sidewalks stream with people; undulating as one, roiling in eddies and coursing along beside the street.

I have a sudden sense that I belong here. I wonder if I have in some way earned a credit or maybe someone has spent one on my behalf. On the wind, gusting now and making a faint sound like a distant orchestra, comes the sweet fragrance of roses. A scent both incongruent and peaceful. I see the girl with the beaded jacket, the country woman and the skull-capped man. I blurt out, “Oh!” and the girl touches a hand to her throat. The man wipes a tear from his cheek. The woman waves, her arm raised high.

Around us—shoppers and shop clerks, office workers, early movie-goers, and students like me—begin to move forward as the animated walk symbol flashes white and I am part of that slow surge to cross the street. The sound of many boots on the concrete grows as we shuffle ahead on the crosswalk. Schutzengel is ahead of me and he looks back, his features indistinct in the fading light. In a moment he vanishes, swept away among the gray and dun overcoats—a bright red leaf on the muddy current, gone now from view.

Schutzengel” is published on TOEWS.IR by special permission of the author, Mitchell Toews, who holds the copyright.