The Man Whose Blood
We followed the yells out of the Santa Lucia subway station to their source: a pair of shoe shiners on the sidewalk hurling obscenities at each other like knives. This was downtown Santiago, mid-March. Drunk shoe shiners—a category new to both Elder Pickering and me. As Mormon missionaries we’d seen more than our share of inebriated men, certainly, but never a pair fighting over clientele. A small crowd gathered to see this nonsense up close: just what weird turn would this Thursday take? Bleary-eyed, unsteady, they circled like circus bears, one wielding a bread knife, the other a bike chain. And screaming accusations. Something about squatter’s rights and stealing customers, something about one hundred pesos, their tinctures and brushes and rags scattered as if a windstorm had zigzagged through the city. I may as well invent names for them. The stocky one, with a bread knife: Tito. The one wielding a bike chain, the drunker of the two, with oily hair that hung to his shoulders: Gonzalo. Elder Pickering made like he wanted to leave. “Hang on,” I said. “But we have an appointment,” he said back. Tito made a few half-hearted stabs. In response Gonzalo flipped the chain like a whip, catching then wrapping around Tito’s knee. Tito bellowed. A taxi hurtled past, honking. Gonzalo looked away just long enough for Tito to pick up a spindly stool where his customers would sit and bring it down over Gonzalo’s head. This street fight was nothing like Hollywood, with a pair of toughs trading death blows, each rising like an unkillable phoenix. The stool broke on contact, packing enough wallop to knock Gonzalo to the ground and opening a mean gash above his eye.
Gonzalo tightened his grip on the chain and tried to get up. No small task, with blood sheeting down the left side of his face. Nearby, Tito shook what was left of the stool, as if to say, You come at me, I’ll hit you again. Where was a green uniformed carabinero with a machine gun when you needed one? Tito stepped closer. Before I could think it through, weigh implications, I jumped between them, these polishers of shoes. My back to Gonzalo, I faced Tito and held my hands up, an impromptu peace officer making things up as he goes. “Oiga,” I said, “can you give him some room?” And I motioned for Tito to return to his scattered supplies on the sidewalk, some twenty feet away. He looked me over in glassy defiance. I felt there were rats inside me trying to find a way out. Slowly he stepped back. I turned to Gonzalo, the left half of his face a mess of red, more blood than I’d ever seen up close. It dripped onto his light blue shirt. He wiped at the wound and attempted to stand up. “Tranquilo,” I said, “keep yourself quiet.” I tried to use a missionary voice to hide my stammers. There must have been thirty, thirty-five people circling us now. I grabbed the cleanest rag I could find, folded it three times, and pressed it against the gash.
This was 1982, the ninth year of the infamous Pinochet regime, and Chile was awash in blood, if you bothered to look. Dogs lying in gutters in puddles of blood. Newspapers trafficking in blood, accidents and murders, new installments daily. Blood dripping from a butchered pig in someone’s back yard. Blood and entrails in a rusted pickup sliding along the highway. A charm dipped in pigeon blood pinned to a baby’s bib to keep off the evil eye. “Whose evil eye?” I asked, with less than a week in the country. My companion shrugged. “Could be anyone’s, including yours,” he said. “To a peasant mother, we’re gringos, extranjeros, evil doers, wicked magicians. Look at the baby wrong, you could curse it for life, at the very least give it a bad fever.” And underneath visible blood, ghost blood. Blood spilled by conquistadors, coup blood, blood of the new regime, blood of the desaparacidos. Blood a mere three blocks away soaking the turf at El Estadio Nacional where soccer greats once pounded the field and pop stars sang their lungs out, where in 1973, following the Golpe, Pinochet and his military conjunto herded dissidents into the stadium, then tortured and shot resistors—some 7000, by certain accounts.
When I re-tell the story of Gonzalo fighting Tito, I think, This time, this time I will find the right narrative thread. And then I attempt to sneak a loop around each listener’s ankle and two or three loops around mine, tie the other end of the rope to the saddle, then slap the horse’s rump, hoping to be taken for a tortuous ride from which I will extract clarity and wisdom. Maybe this time I will explain that splattering blood makes archipelagoes on the sidewalk or that in Spanish “hero” has three syllables, heroé, and ends with an accent that leaves you with your mouth open, as if waiting for a fair damsel’s kiss. But such flights violate linear story- telling, draw an audience dangerously close to bad poetry, not to mention my own narcissism—Come to think of it, I’ve always thought of myself as a hero—so I veer back toward straight narrative and reduce my conundrum in blood to mere anecdote. My listeners nod and say, “Amazing, amazing,” as we’ve all learned to do, then they launch into their own anecdotes. That’s when I want to shake them by the shoulders: Wait, you don’t understand. The man was bleeding, his blood like paint. He was so drunk he hardly knew life was gushing out of him. Two men without names, and I jumped between them, a gringo with an accent.
Usually what passes as drama in a missionary’s life hinges not on blood, but something embarrassingly mundane. Something like cologne. Rewind to my first Christmas in Chile, one year and three months before I’d laid eyes on the drunken shoe shiner I’ve come to call Gonzalo. No tracting or teaching on account of the holiday, so we visited church members instead. We dropped by the Ortegas, who complained at church that we had neglected them. True, I suppose. We didn’t mind Sister Ortega, but Brother Ortega was the type who bears some grandiloquent testimony about God’s goodness and an angel descending from the sky with a glowing book, then hours later he wanders the neighborhood plastered, confronting neighbors and cussing the bleary moon at the top of his lungs. Not exactly Let-your-light-so-shine material. Brother Ortega welcomed us to his house. “Bienvenido,” he said. A tiny place dressed out in Christmas, but reeking of something god awful and spicy. Once we were settled, he left the room, returning shortly with a bottle. “Cologne,” he said, as if we’d never heard the word. He unscrewed the top and splashed some on his neck. “Beautiful smell,” he said, “try it.” My companion declined, I declined. Brother Ortega offered again. Thank you but no, we said. He thought we were being polite. On the third try, my companion relented and allowed Brother Ortega to splash some on his neck. I felt myself gag, cloying spiciness everywhere. “Muy bien,” Brother Ortega said. He tried to hand the bottle to me. “Beautiful smell, beautiful smell,” he said to which I said no thank you. Back and forth, till our exchange was not about cologne, but about my asinine refusal to christen myself with his gift. My voice climbed and climbed until something broke in the room. I wish it had been the bottle, which would have given me a tangible mess to clean up. Brother Ortega retreated to the opposite side of the room, and Sister Ortega served soft drinks, but the broken feeling stayed. I knew in this life I would always smell slightly rotten to Brother Ortega—and myself. Why, why didn’t I just dab on the damned cologne?
“Hay un medico? Llame una ambulancia,” I yelled. “Call an ambulance.” Why wasn’t anyone helping us? “Oiga, Elder Pickering,” I said, “I could use some help.” Couldn’t he see the rag was sopping with blood, squeezing out between my fingers and dripping down Gonzalo’s face? He hustled over. “Get me another rag,” I said, “a thicker one.” He lifted one from the ground, as if it were diseased. Maybe it was. “Sure, that one will do,” I said. “Fold it, now fold it again.” What is it they teach in first aid classes—the skull is one of the most dangerous places to get hit? Straight bone under the skin. Pickering handed me the rag. I slapped it down on top of the first and applied more pressure. Had you asked me to begin CPR that afternoon or treat for shock, I would have proved useless. But apply pressure to a wound: that I could do. Newcomers stopped and pointed, Gonzalo groaning and trying to twist away from me. “Está bien, hermano,” I told him. He calmed a little. Or perhaps he settled into a more mellow level of drunkenness. Let Elder Pickering and the others represent the Levite who crossed to the other side of the wounded man on the road to avoid getting involved. Not me. I pushed on the wound with one hand, pushed the back of his head with the other, and thought virtuous thoughts about myself.
One evening, a few weeks before that first Christmas when I refused to wear nasty cologne, we dropped by to teach a young family, only to find ourselves in the middle of a wake. The couple’s first child, born prematurely, had thrived for weeks at the hospital, but had taken a sudden bad turn. Now neighbors paying their respects crowded the house, and curious children hung around the front door, eager and not eager to go inside. No bigger than a doll, the dead child lay in a tiny wooden box, with a piece of glass over the top, to keep flies off and the smell down. His body was filled with blood and the blood was going bad. Except for a hodgepodge of burning tapers, the room looked as it always had: a radio, a couple of chairs, a television with rabbit ears crookedly poking to the heavens, a re-touched marriage portrait built on contradiction—a couple looking preternaturally young in an old-fashioned sort of way. Under glass, the baby appeared shriveled, as if rescued from a pond. I had been to exactly one funeral in my life: a grade-school basketball couch. What did I know about losing a child? I could barely conjugate the simplest verbs. My Chilean companion taught an impromptu lesson on mercy and God’s love, then on bended knee offered a prayer of consolation, and we slipped out of the house into the dark.
Oh, the rich paradoxes of blood. It flowed no more in this infant but carried forth in the parents, fueling the accusations they aimed at God. According to certain theologians, Eden fell into wilderness at the very moment that Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and blood replaced the celestial elixir in their veins. Not only did the Israelites believe that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” but they prohibited any eating of it—a pragmatic health restriction yes, but also a symbolic religious prohibition. To eat blood was to eat death. Isn’t the Bible a kind of book of blood? Cain spilling what flowed in Abel’s veins, first murder. Moses turning innocent water into ponds of blood and vexing Pharaoh’s court. Believers smearing a little of the red stuff on the lintels and saving their firstborn. You sacrifice a lamb, you ingest the Lamb of God. Oh, Man of sorrows whose shed blood swallows my blood, take us up and drink us as we drink you.
How many people gathered around the bleeding shoe shiner at Santa Lucia? Say thirty, a conservative estimate. Thirty adults times ten pints of blood, I’m rounding down for the sake of simplicity, so 300 pints gathered on a sidewalk in Santiago, Chile in March a few days before my birthday. Among us, men who cut themselves shaving, women who bled themselves fertile three or four days a month—in short, adults used to blood and the way it leaks out. We lamented it, monitored it, denied it, tried to stanch it, swore by it and swore at it, rinsed it away, walked around in public fueled by it. What were we but movable vases of blood, all that salty red stuff behaving according to rules—at least most of the time. None of us thinking: skin is a gift, skin lets me take my nine or twelve pints of blood for a walk, lets me buy hot bread at the corner bakery or stop at the cathedral to light a candle for my ill daughter, or canoodle with the one I love. None thinking, this skin in which I am wonderfully wrapped keeps blood in and the world out. And yet, when a portion of one pint of 300 collective pints spills on skin and clothes and dirty cement and keeps spilling, we collect like sharks. My blood, we reason, knows enough to stay where it belongs, why doesn’t his? What is it underneath suits and dresses, under lust and revenge and heartlessness and curiosity, underneath underwear, under skin, what is it inside our blood that gives blood pause?
One of my last assignments in Chile was to visit a different group of missionaries each Friday and give them gamma globulin shots—to curb racing hormones, local members believed. The truth was a good deal more mundane: to bolster antibodies and keep missionaries on their feet. I had expert training in this task, which is to say, another missionary gave me a needle and an old orange one afternoon and said, Practice with water till the orange bursts or you get it right. I debuted the next day. The task was simple enough: warm the gummy gamma globulin to room temperature, fill the syringe, get the air bubbles out, pinch the missionary’s tricep, plunge the needle in at an angle, inject slowly, and talk up the work. “Hey Sister, you’re really tearing it up in San Bernardo. Twenty-three discussions last week.” Or, “Elder, you guys still playing soccer on Mondays?” Though I never liked giving the injections any more than missionaries liked receiving them, I fell into the ritual of it—small talk, rolled-up sleeves, the sting of the needle, tired jokes to scare off weariness. And underneath the camaraderie, a smorgasbord of blood: he blood, she blood, anorexic Sister Munoz blood with her fleshless arms, the blood of Elder Rock (his actual name), a weight lifter with cantaloupe biceps so big he had to take off his shirt for an injection. Blood smearing each cotton ball held to each arm, cotton balls collecting in a wastebasket at my feet. A, B, O positive, O negative, what are we, who will we become when we are beyond blood?
One of my favorite responsibilities: interviewing candidates for baptism, especially young kids. Beribboned or cowlicked, faces scrubbed, eager to say yes no matter what the question. Adults—a trickier lot. We talked about faith, repentance, white tunics, burying the old self in a grave of water, the Holy Ghost like sweet fire. I reminded them it was not me receiving their burden. I was merely an agent. Sometimes their confessions bled from them in a torrent of tears and regret: violence, drunkenness, drugs, thievery, unfaithfulness, abuse. A woman who had three abortions, a man who beat up a rival gang member and left him for dead under a bridge—no idea whether he pulled through. I recall an investigator in her early twenties. After weeks of lessons and an interview, she was ready. Now, the day before her baptism, she turned jumpy and distressed and wanted to speak in private. Under a darkening sky, we stepped outside her parents’ house. “Are you having second thoughts?” I asked. She shook her head no, she wanted baptism in the worst way, but there was this thing. Her hands turning in front of her like paddle wheels, this thing inside her. What thing? I said. This thing, muy adentro, she said, her eyes welling up, this contraceptivo, and somehow I understood she meant an IUD. She had gone to a clinic to have it removed, but her doctor was on vacation. Would she have to postpone the baptism, with this mala cosa, this bad thing nestled deep inside, like a crow’s foot? Of course not, I said, you’re as ready as anyone, and I thought of the woman in the New Testament, how she reached out her hand in a jostling crowd, and was cured of twelve years of blood.
The story of Gonzalo was a story of blood, but also other things. I first tried writing it as a poem. To create a little distance, I made the narrator an exchange student, not a missionary. Instead of scriptures, I gave him a violin in a black case. Instead of supplying a missionary to travel with, I let him wend his way home alone after a violin lesson in Las Condes. In the poem I never finished, the narrator, after holding a dirty rag to Gonzalo’s head, drops into the subway and travels the bowels of Santiago to emerge in La Cisterna to study math with his sort-of girlfriend. She was filled with blood, and so was he, and their bodies were not broken and after he told the story of holding the bloody man, she called him a hero, her mouth partly open. I wanted to slow things down as they slipped outside. I wanted her to massacre English and him to stumble through the subjunctive. I wanted her to notice blood on his shirt and him to taste lemon on her mouth when he kissed her. I wanted him to follow the River Maipú back to his host family. I wanted him to stop to urinate and look up at the moon, the same moon spilling indifferent light on his house back in the States. I wanted him to add his water to the water of the river and laugh out loud at nothing in particular, then shiver against the cold.
I held Gonzalo’s head for how long, five minutes, maybe six? I don’t remember an ambulance pulling up, just two men in white carrying medical supplies. They nodded at me. Their nod said, So you intervened, Pal. Big deal. Go back to your silly missionary life. Real help has arrived. I held Gonzalo’s head a moment longer. Part of me thought, No, I’ll keep him to myself. But it was a small part of me. I stood up and walked away. Gonzalo said nothing, not thank you, not goodbye. The crowd stared for a moment, as if I were leaving a stage, then turned their attention to the medicos who were guaranteeing that Gonzalo remained the center of attention. When I replay this story now I don’t think of myself as heroic so much as laughable. A boy, a young man, not used to blood. Laughable but lucky. I blew my first chance at embracing a country when I refused the smelly cologne of a drunken man, but not my second. I can still smell Gonzalo, his unwashed body and the seepy stink of alcohol, his mouth a gash of unbrushed teeth. As much as I recoiled, I also felt a fierce purpose, my hand pressing his forehead, keeping the blood inside him where it belonged. “You better wash up,” Elder Pickering said. I must have looked pretty mangy—blood on both hands, splashes on my shirt and pants, great drops like toe caps on my shoe. We found a water faucet at a nearby park and I washed. The red disappeared from my shirt but left a halo, wet and pink. “Well?” I said. Elder Pickering looked me over. “Not bad,” he said. We walked the three blocks to the bus stop, my shirt cold and wet against my skin.
When I think of Santiago in the early 80s, I think of towering glass buildings downtown and open air markets that explode with trade each morning, I think of squatters and ramshackle slums and battered buses, I think of soldiers toting machine guns, I think of empanadas and the greening foothills of the Andes, I think of kids playing soccer in the street, and I think too of the hundreds of memorials to spilled blood dotting the city. These are cobbled-together affairs at best—more like cairns than monuments. Where the train tracks veer south and a freighter hit a child flying a kite, a tiny shrine. There in the field, at the base of a giant electric tower, three shrines. At a dangerous intersection, four or five shrines, each tethered to a different ghost, a different accident. We will not forget, these shrines seem to say. And in the process, these shrines convert victim into supplicant, supplicant into advocate, advocate into a local saint who might curry favor with the Virgin and her wounded Son. A theology so primitive and naive that I can’t help but feel drawn to it in memory. At night, a candle burning inside a shrine beside a picture of the deceased, kept company by a Virgin the size of a doll. I can fix you, says the candle. And take away your struggles, says the photograph. There’s room for you here, says the Virgin. Shrink yourself down, she says to me, to everyone. Shrink yourself down and crawl inside this refuge station, curl up on a dollhouse bed, rest your legs, poor mules. Let someone so small He is immense rock you till morning.