My complete stories | my book ORPHANS

Bearing Witness
by Steve Schlich

Marsh was dying; my ears told me. I looked over and saw him lying on his back as always. But he was gurgling, not snoring in the loud obscene way he usually did. He was drowning from the rain that fell into his open mouth. Christ! I'd thrown pebbles at that mouth on nights when the snoring was especially bad. Now I crept over to him and turned him on his side.

He was shivering. No surprise. He had a heavy coat but nothing to cover his legs except tattered, damp jeans. His forehead was hot and sweaty. The wheeze in his breathing had changed to a death rattle that brought to mind lungs clogged by too many cigarettes.

He didn't sound as if he would last until morning.

There were seven of us out there that night, including myself. I looked around at the others. A few slept. Clark's eyes glistened back at me in the pale light. He nodded wearily to indicate that he knew the score on Marsh.

We were family. At least I wanted to believe that. I'd known Marsh less than three months, and none of the others any longer than that, but I knew them better than any friend I ever had on Easy Street. Being on Skid Row throws you in with people you never thought you could stomach, much less care about, but after a while you do. A while later you stop again. I guess I hadn't reached the final stage yet.

Clark stirred the soggy embers in his oil drum. He'd tipped the drum on its side, but the rain didn't have enough decency to fall straight down and leave his fire alone. Clark had been homeless for five years. He looked it, too. But he was resourceful. A survivor. The furrows in his brow read like the rings of an old tree. The tough years had dug the deepest trenches, and the good years...well, they must have been in there somewhere. I went over to him.

“I want to bury him,” I whispered, pointing at Marsh with my eyes.

Clark spat. “Ain't dead yet, Shakespeare,” he observed. He called me Shakespeare because I wrote in a little notebook every day.

Embarrassment flushed my face. I looked away awkwardly. We were competing with weeds for possession of a shallow gully defined by an abandoned railway roadbed and a highway right-of-way fence. It was a strip of no man's land that separated the fringes of downtown from the manicured berms of the freeway. The headlights from passing traffic made momentary jewels of the broken glass littered about.

“Maybe we could get him to an emergency room?”

Clark rolled his eyes in grim bemusement. We'd tried once before. And such heroics would be of little use at this stage. “Too late for that,” Clark admitted. “He'll be better off anyway. Just don't rush him.”

“I want to bury him,” I repeated.

“You won't get the chance.”

“I'll get a shovel somewhere. Or something. I'll find a place. There's some soft earth around here.”

“That's big of you, Shakespeare.” Something resembling sarcasm shaded Clark's voice. “But there's no need. They'll come for him.”

What did he mean? A quick autopsy and cheap cremation courtesy of the city? It was too depressing. Scavengers? That conjured up images straight from the most wretched of Channel 20's midnight horror flicks. “What are you talking about?”

Clark stirred some life into his oil drum embers. He pulled a handful of dry sticks from somewhere in his coat and coaxed forth a fresh flame. “You'll see,” he said. “No worries.” As if that explained anything.

I stood there for a minute, frowning at him. Then I went back to Marsh. Nobody was going to scavenge his body if I had anything to do with it. I looked around for something I might use as a weapon.

Clark's sarcasm gnawed at me. I care more about Marsh's body than his life, is that what you're implying? Screw you, judge and jury! You don't know anything!

He definitely didn't know much about me. I wondered what he would think, what any of them would think, if they knew that I was here by choice.

When they laid me off at the newspaper, I got this idea to do a book on the homeless. I'd done a successful feature on them once. What about something longer, more definitive, more intimate?

It had a twisted romanticism to it. Go out there. Be homeless for a year. Keep a diary. Transform it into a gut-wrenching — not to mention socially relevant — study of the despair under everyone's nose. True grit. Pulitzer Prize stuff. Definitely.

I “qualified” myself to be homeless by chucking most of my stuff and stashing what remained in a friend's basement. I let my apartment go. Then I went down to Goodwill to purchase an appropriate wardrobe: old shoes, permanently dirty work pants, too-large wool shirt and a well-worn overcoat.

But I also kept insurance in the form of an instant teller card stuffed into a deep pocket.

Some former colleagues taunted me: Middle class white boy explores the seamy underside of life...Young artist samples skid row...Greedy writer feeds off the homeless and regurgitates a book contract. Let `em scoff; they'd be lining up at my door when it became a best seller.

Who were they to judge me anyway? I had a few thousand in the bank, it's true, but that cash wouldn't save the world. And I was trying to save a piece of it with my unemployment check. I bought food and passed it around. Without me, Marsh would have been a goner long ago.

Now it looked and sounded as if the angels of God couldn't save him. He sucked air in great gulps. His eyes were wide open, but I couldn't make contact with him. I knelt down next to him and put my hand on his forehead.

“It's okay, man,” I told him. “It's going to be okay.”

If he heard me, he must have known I was lying. He gurgled again and vomited a small pool of blood. I tried to prop up his head a little with the hood of his coat. Where was the water bottle? Hell, I had a whiskey flask in my coat. I dug around for it and took a swig before offering it to him. He didn't seem to want any. I realized that he was dead.

I closed his eyes with my fingers and called out to Clark, “He's gone.”

“Good for him,” Clark called back. “He'll be feeling better now.”

I pulled Marsh's hood down over his face. Feeling in feeling nothing at all. It's not so much that you stop caring, it's more that you harden yourself. Toughen up. Get pragmatic. You have to do that.

Marsh no longer needed my attentions. Bury him in the morning, that's what I figured. While the ground was still soft from the rain. I considered what Clark had implied about scavengers taking the body. A short length of pipe lay on the ground near the fence. I picked it up and hefted it. Not that anyone would be coming for him anytime soon, but I was ready.

I pulled the diary from my pocket and began writing while my impressions were fresh: Microcosm of the world in the dingy shadow of the and death struggles...society's fringe...Darwinism alive and well among the sick and the dying...can you find dignity while breathing your last in a ditch?

An involuntary shiver seized me. I pulled the jacket tightly around my shoulders and looked over at Clark. He was shivering too.

“Salvation coming,” he said as matter-of-factly as he might announce the sunrise.

Start making sense, I thought. Then I wondered if what I saw could possibly make sense.

Something stepped across the trackless roadbed and into the gully. It was a small man in a white lab coat. He came straight toward me and details resolved as he drew closer.

He was extremely short, four feet tall at best. An ancient stethoscope made a thick necklace over his chest, its end tucked into the breast pocket alongside a reflex hammer with a triangular rubber head. Creased white pants hung loosely and low enough to obscure the laces of his polished brown shoes. A silver reflector eyepiece with a hole in the center perched atop a plastic headband.

But his features wouldn't resolve. His face had a brow and a chin and the topography of a nose, but nothing else. No eyes, no mouth...nothing. Like a tiny unfinished mannequin, except that this one was moving. I backed away from Marsh's body.

The all business. He reached Marsh and immediately began a methodical examination. He checked for a pulse: wrist, then carotid. He flipped the reflector down and shined a pen light into each of Marsh's eyes. He slapped Marsh's cheeks, even gave CPR a half-hearted try. No response, of course.

Then he began artificial resuscitation.

He pinched Marsh's nose and pulled down his jaw to open his mouth, then bent over him to breathe into his lungs. I watched in fascination before I remembered that the little doctor had no mouth!

The thought stopped my shivering instantly. I gripped the length of pipe and moved toward the doctor.

“What do you think you're doing?” I demanded, holding the pipe in front of me like a wand — or a club. When there was no response at all, I repeated the question louder.

He turned and faced me as if to ask, Isn't it obvious? And now he had a face. It belonged to Marsh. Marsh's eyes, Marsh's mouth, even his patchy stubble and sad expression.

I froze like an animal caught in headlamps. He studied me for a moment and then turned back to the corpse.

He began laying his hands all over the body, as if drawing warmth from a fire. First Marsh and then the doctor began to glow as if lit from within. When I looked at Marsh's face, it was as blank as the doctor's had been before. The sight thawed me instantly.

“Get away from him. Stop it!”

The doctor ignored me. Now he was the twisted parody of a faith healer, his hands sucking energy from his subject rather than bestowing it. What was left to be taken from poor old Marsh? His immortal soul?

A tide of rage broke over me. “Get away!” I bellowed, and charged. I swung the pipe down and the doctor made no effort to avoid the blow. My weapon caught him full on the back of the head. He slumped over Marsh and did not move.

Now what? Gripping the pipe, I used my foot to roll him off Marsh and onto his back. He wasn't dead. Yet. His breathing was labored, as Marsh's had been earlier. To my eyes, he was Marsh. Except for size and clothing, he and Marsh had traded places.

His eyes opened and stared at me. It only fueled my anger.

“Thief!” I spat at him. “You're stealing his soul!”

He replied in the weak, measured tones of the dying. “No. You...are the thief.”

“Liar!” I told him, but my diary and my oh-so-compassionate musings, my book and my ambitions surfaced in my mind. Unbidden. Unavoidable. Undeniable.

Soft rain pelted his face as he died. The life left his eyes like the light from a failing flashlight slowly fading, then surging, then going finally, irrevocably, dark.

I don't know how long I stood there looking at him. My reverie was broken by the sound of a car's tires rolling heavily over broken glass in the distance. I looked up to see a white station wagon turned off the road and approaching the railroad berm.

No, not a station wagon. An old style ambulance, complete with monstrous chrome grillwork and a red domed flasher perched atop the roof. No lights were on, however. Not the flasher and not the headlamps. The ambulance stopped at the ditch's edge and for a long moment, just sat there.

Finally, all four doors opened. Out came four tiny doctors, carbon copies of the one I had killed. They opened the back doors, retrieved two stretchers and came across the ditch. I backed away, afraid but once again transfixed.

The doctors, like their predecessor, had blank faces and took no notice of me as they went about their business. They unfolded the stretchers, set them down and loaded the two bodies onto them. Then they gathered around the doctor who had stolen Marsh's face.

They performed all the same tasks: pulse, eyes, cheeks, CPR. Finally, they performed mouth-to-mouth, one at a time. As each rose and gave way to the next, he looked straight at me and I saw that he had acquired Marsh's face. Something choked my throat. Fear? I didn't have the pipe any more, but I approached them anyway.

“You have no right to do this,” I croaked. “You have no right.”

“Talk to me about rights,” one of them said with Marsh's voice, and my head filled with paragraphs of detail concerning rights: magazine, hardcover, paperback and motion picture. Did I have the right?

“You cannot judge us,” he told me. “You can only bear witness.”

The doctor on the stretcher was now as blank as Marsh, as blank as he had been when he first approached. The group's work was done. They picked up the stretchers and headed back across the railbed. I followed. As they loaded the bodies into the back of the ambulance, I confronted one of them.

“Where are you taking him?”

“Away. To where he can belong.”

A sudden longing filled me. Do you come for everyone? Will you come for me? Will I belong? I hadn't spoken the words, but I knew he heard them.

His eyes gave me the answer I did not want. They finished with the bodies and got back into the ambulance. It turned around slowly and headed for the boulevard.

“Stop! Wait!” I chased it, caught it and leapt onto the wide back bumper. I pounded on the back doors and pleaded for entry.

We hit a big bump and I fell off. But the ambulance stopped. A door opened and a doctor stepped out. He studied me wordlessly. I felt his compassion.

“Take me with you,” I whispered. “I want to belong. I want to help.”

Silence. Then: “Help yourself.”

He climbed back inside. The ambulance went to the road, turned out onto the boulevard, and was gone. I walked back to the encampment, my hands trembling.

The eyes of all my companions were on me. No one moved. Not a word was spoken. I tried to make contact with each of them — any of them — but they had found me out. One by one they turned away, hunkered down and escaped into sleep.

I spent a long time staring at the boulevard where the ambulance had disappeared into the traffic. Could I bear witness? Perhaps, but not with my pen. I took the diary from my pocket and moved to Clark's oil drum. Each torn page burned brightly for a moment and then became a fragile blanket of ash that crumbled over the coals like a broken promise.

When the last page was gone, I put my bank card on the coals. It melted into a bubbling plastic mass quickly.

I took a final look around the circle. Where did I belong? Not with the homeless. And not back on Easy Street. If I was supposed to make a difference in either place, it wouldn't happen this way.

There were two twenties in my pocket. I pushed one into Clark's coat and walked off into the night.

The other twenty bought a bus ticket south. Where didn't matter. I sat in the back and no one tried to make conversation with me. That was good. I needed time to think.

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

In late 1992, I was in the middle of writing “Bearing Witness” when I had an experience with its subject matter that changed the story's course. I tried to help a homeless woman and came up empty. I felt helpless and that translated into a “down” ending for the story — probably the reason it didn't sell.

I later rewrote the second half radically and tacked on an upbeat ending. I felt cheap and the story still didn't sell. In this version, I've kept the good parts of the rewrite but restored the original ending. It may not be heartwarming, but it's honest.