Gandhi’s Admirer

Twelve till midnight. On this Saturday, March 8, he was listening to a recap of the day’s hockey games on the kitchen radio, making a cup of hot chocolate to drink while he watched the film Gandhi, which was to be shown on TV at midnight, when suddenly a news bulletin made him curse.

A bomb attack would hardly have elicited a sigh from him. Bomb attacks, like interethnic strife, mass murders, and satanic rituals, had become daily news fodder. Even a plane crash in downtown Montreal with three hundred victims would not have shaken him as much. Since the beginning of the year, there had been so many air disasters that the year had already been ranked as one of the worst in the history of civil aviation. But an appeal directed to donors of Type O positive blood, urging them to report immediately to Saint-Luc hospital, implicated him personally: he had Type O positive blood, and Saint-Luc was only ten minutes from his apartment.

He turned off the radio. “No matter how great Gandhi was,” he told himself, “I won’t be able to watch the exploits of a dead man when somebody’s life depends on a few drops of my blood. I’ll drink the chocolate to warm myself up, and I’ll be on my way.”

He poured the chocolate into the cup.

The chocolate was very hot. He blew on it as he gazed out the kitchen window. Swaying before his eyes, the leafless branches on the three-stories-tall maple tree made him shiver. In the street below, squalls of snow were swirling around his old Toyota parked in front of the building.

“I hope the car won’t break down,” he thought. And he shuddered as he recalled the tragic fate of a traveling salesman from Chicago whose car had broken down on the Interstate in the midst of a blizzard. For three hours, the man had waited for someone to stop and come to his aid. In vain. Despairing and half frozen, he had gotten back into his car, written a brief but heartfelt farewell letter to his colleagues, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

“Those things don’t happen in the heart of a big city, where there are phone booths at every street corner,” he told himself.

Then: “No, in the kind of metropolis Montreal has become, we have to worry instead about the people who show up to help us.”

He was referring to an incident that had occurred several blocks from his apartment. A young pediatrician was driving his mother home one evening when the car blew a tire. Two passersby offered to help him. One of them grabbed the jack and bashed in the doctor’s skull. The second one pounced on the mother. But her screams frightened the assailants, and they ran off with her handbag.

“A young doctor who still had so much to contribute to society, murdered by two heroin addicts desperate for a fix,” he reflected. “And I’m supposed to go out in this vile weather, running the risk of being assaulted, maybe even killed, to help some hoodlum? Who else would be in need of blood at this hour except a junkie wounded by a tow-truck operator in the course of a stickup, or a drug dealer stabbed by a customer with no money, or a biker shot down in a nightclub to settle a score, as now happens almost every night? Let him bleed, the scum!”

He turned away from the window and was about to switch off the kitchen light when it crossed his mind that the injured person might not actually be a low-life, but rather the victim of one. The tow-truck operator, for example, an honest working person and conscientious citizen who would not have hesitated to brave the blizzard in order to donate his own blood.

He set the cup of hot chocolate on the counter.

Outside, the branches of the maple tree were creaking in the wind.

“It has to be a hoodlum,” he told himself. “Blood types are hereditary. So how is it that his family hasn’t come to his rescue? Because they would rather bury him than see him back on his feet selling drugs or stealing handbags. And so I’m supposed to help him resume his activities? If there are those who find that funny, I’m not one of them!”

He thought about Bob, an office colleague who, the previous evening, had succeeded in extracting five dollars from him by betting he couldn’t guess, even with three tries, the occupation that makes the most girls run after a guy. When he had to admit that he was stumped, Bob told him, “Oh, come on, dummy! It’s a purse-snatcher.”

He picked up his cup again.

But he didn’t make it out of the kitchen, even though Gandhi was to begin in less than eight minutes.

“Just suppose,” he said to himself, “that this is about a tourist, or an immigrant with no family in Montreal. Even if it involves a Montreal native, maybe he went out with his parents and, with the roads as they are, his car spun out and hit a wall or a post, and they all wound up in the emergency room.”

He set down his cup again and picked up the telephone to call a taxi. “A taxi will drop me off safe and sound at the hospital entrance,” he told himself. “And it will cost me a whole lot less than it would to hire a tow truck if my Toyota got stuck. Unless, of course, the cab driver happened to be Haitian.”

He had nothing against Haitians, but several complaints had recently been filed against Haitian taxi drivers, and the companies that employed them were even thinking of firing them. The Human Rights League and the Haitian Association had protested, claiming that certain Haitian drivers were not yet familiar with Montreal’s streets.

“Then how did they get their cabbies’ licenses?” he asked himself. “In my opinion, they take roundabout routes to take advantage of newcomers. And the last thing I need during a shortage of O positive blood is to ride with a Haitian driver and then find myself in need of a transfusion!”

He hung up the phone, though he didn’t let go of it. He very much wanted to call a taxi, but he was unwilling to insist that they send him a non-Haitian driver. “I’m not a racist,” he told himself.

Then: “So what am I going to do?”

He rubbed his forehead. This whole business was beginning to give him a headache. Then he thought of his wife, who’d been asleep for an hour. If she hadn’t stored her new Honda in the garage for the winter, he could have taken it, gotten to Saint-Luc in ten minutes, and returned home in time to see at least the second half of Gandhi, even though he didn’t like to miss the beginning of movies.

“We absolutely have to get the VCR fixed,” he thought.

He was about to make note of that on the little blackboard hanging to the right of the refrigerator, when the gurgling of a pipe in the wall behind the sink reminded him that the woman who lived in the adjoining apartment was a nurse.

“As a nurse,” he said, “she’ll understand the urgency of the situation and lend me her car. Unless she refuses to let me in at this hour. She’s pretty weird.”

He was so attentive to his physique (for example, he always walked outdoors for a half hour after dinner, regardless of the weather) that he had chosen to move to the top floor of a four-story building with no elevator, because, as he’d told his wife, the stairs they’d have to climb would help keep their figures trim. He didn’t think, however, that the nurse had chosen a top-floor apartment for the same reason. Day after day, she would order a pizza, Chinese food, or souvlakis. Of course, the delivery man would always be out of breath when he reached the landing. And the woman would take a good two minutes to open the door. And night after night, while his wife was sleeping at his side, he would try to imagine what the hell his neighbor was doing for two minutes while she listened to a man panting outside her door. “This is the long-awaited occasion to find out,” he said. “And I have good reasons for panting: I’m distraught and desperate . . .”

The wail of an ambulance siren under his window reminded him that he was losing precious time. “You aren’t going to start thinking, the way Bob does, that all women who live alone are deranged,” he told himself. “And besides, the fact that a few Haitian cab drivers are crooked doesn’t mean they all are. No more than that all blacks have contracted AIDS just because the virus came from Africa. So stop being silly and call a taxi.”

At that point, he picked up the receiver and began dialing the taxi dispatcher’s number. As he did so, he paused to consider whether he was running the risk, however small, of contracting AIDS himself. Not from a Haitian taxi driver. He had seen and read enough news coverage of AIDS to know that it couldn’t be transmitted by simple contact. Rather, he was worried about the needles that were used to draw blood. Hard up for money, the government had greatly reduced the budget for health services, and some hospitals had closed up to fifty percent of their rooms.

“What if they reuse their syringes, too?” he asked himself. “In that case it would be critical for the nurse to sterilize the needle before inserting it into my arm. But suppose I end up in the hands of a maniac like my neighbor . . . Even if they still use disposable syringes, who could guarantee that I wouldn’t catch Legionnaire’s Disease? Just since Christmas, three hospital patients in Montreal have died from this new scourge of our wonderful modern society!”

He hung up the phone.

“The good woman was right,” he told himself as he recalled an affecting little scene he had witnessed on New Year’s Eve at the Complexe Desjardins shopping mall. He was waiting for his wife when he heard a young girl ask a lady in her sixties why she was sitting all alone in a shopping center on this holiday.

“Because I’m an adult,” the woman had answered. “And we adults have very creative minds. We are constantly creating problems and enemies for ourselves.”

“She was absolutely right,” he repeated to himself while glancing at his watch. “Here I am, the friggin’ picture of health—knock wood—and yet I could easily find myself at death’s door between now and Christmas, maybe even between now and Easter, just for having wanted to keep someone else alive.”

Nodding, he lifted the cup of hot chocolate.

His hand was trembling.

He set the cup back down.

“I want to help!” he said. “I gave blood when I was a university student. And every year since then, I’ve given twenty dollars to the Canadian Heart Association, twenty dollars to the Canadian Mental Health Society, and ten dollars to the Arthritis Society. That’s without counting the fourteen dollars and forty-three cents I pay every week to the provincial health insurance plan. Is it my fault if those imbeciles are incapable of assuring us a measly pint of O positive in an emergency? Do I also have to risk my life because there are people who go traipsing around in weather like this instead of staying home and watching an intelligent film for once?”

In his agitation, he spilled several drops of the still-hot chocolate onto his hand. While wiping them, he thought, “There’s a strong possibility that the people waiting for O positive were asking for nothing more this evening than to watch a film based on an inspiring life like Gandhi’s, when suddenly their house caught fire. It may also be that, thanks to a new screening test for the HIV virus, all the supplies of O positive were found to be contaminated.”

He massaged his forehead again. His migraine was getting worse. Meanwhile, the wind outside was howling like a banshee. He thought again of his wife. She went to bed every night at eleven, never listened to the news, and every winter she would shut her car up in the garage, knowing that each morning he would be the first to get up, venture out to extricate and warm up his old Toyota, and drive it to the office.

“Don’t let yourself be fooled by their daintiness,” his father had once told him. “There may be twice as many women in the doctors’ waiting rooms, but there are twice as many men in the cemeteries.”

“What did he have to bitch about? He buried three wives, never took an interest in the lives of the children he gave them, and he died at eighty-eight from falling off a horse on a merry-go-round. And when one day I asked him if he at least remembered that there had been two world wars in his lifetime, he replied, ‘You worry about too many things.’ He may have been right. You only have to look at the suicide rate among my contemporaries. And according to the most recent data, eighty percent of those who commit suicide in Quebec are men.”

Outside, the branches of the maple tree were flexing more and more violently.

“The bulletin was most likely prompted by a suicide attempt,” he thought. “It’s well known that more people slit their wrists in late winter than at any other time of year. There’s a reason for it. After five months of frigid weather and gray skies, even Mother Teresa would jump out of a window. And that’s without mentioning stress, anxiety, unemployment, violence, hunger, terrorist attacks, recession, acid rain, genocide, and the Star Wars defense system. But our beloved medical profession still believes it takes only a pint of blood to restore the joy of living to a person who is sick with desperation or unable to cope with reality. Good Lord! Don’t they know, in all their wisdom, that the person they want to save will curse them as soon as they’ve brought him back to life and will surely try again to slash his wrists and that the next time he’ll be extra careful to get things right? But our dear doctors couldn’t care less that a poor guy continues to suffer. His suffering is necessary in order for them to justify their enormous incomes or to enhance their reputations. And I’m supposed to become an accomplice to those Frankensteins!”

Abruptly, the bare branches that were waving under his eyes called to mind the bony arms of malnourished children pleading for help, as he had seen in documentaries filmed in Africa or in Gandhi’s subcontinent. He thought then of the Indian leader, and the attitude he himself had embraced for the preceding eight minutes made him feel nauseated. So he dashed to the bathroom and swallowed two aspirins. Then, proud of himself, he picked up the telephone and dialed the number of the taxi dispatcher.

He was on the point of giving his address when he suddenly realized he had just disqualified himself as a donor.

Twenty years had gone by since the last time he’d given blood, but he remembered clearly that the nurse had asked him several questions before she’d had him roll up his sleeve. The first thing she had wanted to know was whether he’d taken any medications or analgesics during the previous twenty-four hours.

“Why had she asked specifically about analgesics?” he mused. “Because a donor isn’t supposed to take any in the twenty-four hours before blood is drawn.”

He hung up, furious with himself. “Imbecile,” he scolded, “why didn’t you think of that?”

Then: I hope I’m not the only person with Type O positive who heard the bulletin.”

His brow furrowed, he tried to recall who among his acquaintances had Type O positive. He could call the person to tell him to rush over to Saint-Luc hospital. But no name came to mind. Yet he didn’t lose hope.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the bulletin,“ he told himself. “And even if only ten percent of Montrealers are Type O positive, that’s still two hundred thousand people. And if as few as one percent of them were listening to the radio broadcast, that still makes two thousand donors.”

Reassured, he signed with relief. Then he took his cup of chocolate and moved into the living room, just in time to see the opening scene of the film, which depicted Gandhi’s assassination.

During the following scene, that of the funeral procession, he thought about Bob and a cunning smile formed on his lips. He’d just found a way to recover the five dollars that his office colleague had snatched away from him. Perhaps he would even succeed in plucking ten from Bob. Yes, on Monday he’ll say to him, “Bob, I’ll bet you ten bucks that you can’t guess, even if I give you three tries, the easiest and most gratifying way to lose a pound in ten minutes.” And when Bob, in his turn, is rendered speechless, he’ll say to him, “Come on, you big zero, it’s by donating a pint of blood.”

Translation of “L’admirateur de Gandhi.” Copyright Pan Bouyoucas. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.