by Sushrut Jangi, SOM ’09
Grand Prize Winner 2008 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award
“My first drink,” Socorro said looking at me with his great yellow eyes, “was mezcal.”
“Ah.” He closed his eyes and pushed his body back in the hospital chair, the legs creaking and threatening to break under the weight of a rising memory.
“It was a hot day, my god,” he said. “The leaves on the lemon trees by my father’s house in Jalisco dancing like the women that get you into trouble. You been to Jalisco?”
“I haven’t.” I pulled out a pad of paper from my white coat pocket and under bilateral lung crackles, I scribbled Jalisco.
He snorted then cleared his throat. He closed his eyes again.
“Jalisco is a beautiful place, great rolling hills, people with brown skin like chocolate moving down the streets, and everything is slow, molasses, and the sky is as blue as agave. None of this,” he pointed to the gray window. He paused, then went on. “We sat there under these lemon trees. Hot day, the sun clawing into your skin. And there were wasps everywhere, flying this way, that way.” His fingers moved through the air. ““Everything smelled like lemons and honey.” He took a great breath. This sent him into a series of coughs, his body heaving, his lungs expanding and collapsing like ancient bellows that had fallen into disrepair. When his fit was over, he grimaced in his chair. He wore only an extra-large Hanes underwear that was stretched across his bottom. He was shirt-less and bare-chested. Crimson and violet boils were scattered across his sternum and veins snaked the expanse of his stomach. The room smelled of his sweat.
“Carlos was smaller than me. Fast and curious.”
“My brother, poor bastard. He’s dead now. Killed by the local militia for trafficking. They shot him through the neck.” “I’m sorry to hear that.”
He moved in the chair. Scratched his thin cheek with his nail, his skin like paper. Then he reached up to his nose, and with his thumb and middle finger, he adjusted his nasogastric tube. “He was a foolish boy who loved life. It was his idea that hot morning to go into town. Our father kept a stash of pesos in a brown shoe tucked under the bed. Carlos crept underneath and fished the money out while I stood in the hallway and watched for my father’s shadow in the kitchen. My brother ran towards me smiling with the fistful of coins. We held the pesos under our noses and smelled them, like shoe polish, and something else, the smell of all the strange adult hands they had passed through. Whether it was good money or bad money, we didn’t care, it was ours, ours to spend on anything we chose, and that morning we were like gods, Carlos and I, stealing away from the house and running to the town.”
Carlos, I scrawled under Jalisco.
He looked up at me, writing on my pad. “What are you writing there?”
“Names of the places and people you are describing.”
“You need it for your medical report?”
“I might,” I said.
“It will help you treat me?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Bring me a basin.”
I ran forward with a kidney bowl and watched him vomit a green-yellow color into it. I looked up at the arboreum of clear bags on his IV pole swinging above his head. When he was finished he began to cough. I reached to call for his nurse, but he shook his hands at me. “I’ll be okay,” he said. “I just need to rest.”
I walked to the window and looked outdoors at the white hills with crooked New England houses frozen into the landscape. The lake that spread before the hills was black with small continents of ice sheets drifting on its surface. Right underneath the window, I saw the smokestack beside the hospital that puffed out a modest stream of smoke – the Incinerator – we called it jokingly in our first year of medical school, where we imagined they burned all of the deceased.
Soccoro began to speak again from behind me. “We ran to the town that morning, with the money in our dirty hands. Like gods. We saw everything in the town. As though our eyes were rinsed with soap and water. Everything bright and burning before us. The tianguis. The sound of a hundred dialects. Flowers, fruits, rusted bells, the brush of ocean wind and the spark of fire pits, flutes and pipes, boots, young girls singing with their new voices, lemon pops, barrels and barrels of rum, real sugarcane. And the people! There were sailors and their mistresses, jugglers and sword swallowers, men with no legs, magicians: it was the entire world in one morning,” he said. He sat back and sighed.
“What did you spend your money on?”
He grinned and showed me the soft yellow shells of his teeth, the enamel cracked and long gone.
“There was a girl from the village selling drinks underneath a small awning. A lavender dress hiding her legs. Poor thing. Not a smile for us. She was beautiful.” He pointed up to the TV in the corner of the room on which a Latin soap opera was playing. “Nothing like that. But she was part of our day.”
“What was her name?”
He shook his head. “There are women you have loved?”
“When you’re a dying man like me, you won’t remember any of their names. But,” he said, grasping at the air, “small things about them will float back to you, and you’ll grab at whatever you can – the way they ate, or some lovely argument you had, or the feel of their breasts.” He coughed again, brown sputum, that he wiped away with his napkin. “A wild mind God has given us.”
“If you think back,” I told him, “you will remember more.”
“No,” he said. “It’s a gift that we forget.” He blinked. “She stood between morning and evening. Her face in half-light and shadow. An apothecary. For behind her were what seemed to us thousands of bottles, some dark, others as white as milk. Poisons and solutions. We knew, both Carlos and I, that it was here that we would spend our money.”
“And she gave you the mezcal.”
“Yes, but we had no money for the glasses, only for the bottle. We had nothing real to drink from, no caballito, no glass, just our dirty hands. She saw our faces and she disappeared under the counter and produced lemons from under the counter. Like gold they were. She split them right in front of us and handed one half to Carlos and one half to me. We ate the flesh of the lemons and then opened our hands. She poured the mezcal right into the cups of our hands and we tilted our heads back and let it burn our throats, the lemon flesh still on our tongues, the sun biting our red faces, my god, it was my first and last good drink. And then I fell.”
“From the fire of the mezcal. I fell to my feet, right there before my baby brother and this strange and wonderful girl and my head hit the stones on the ground.”
“You passed out?”
“I don’t know what happened. The next thing I remember was my father standing in front of me in my bedroom, asking me where I had been. I told him I’d gone to the village to buy books for Carlos. What books, he asked me. Real books, I told him. Fat ones with big spines. Literatura. Don Quixote. Even English books. Tom Sawyer. I thought the smell on my breath would betray me. But it didn’t. The mezcal rested quietly on my tongue. Already it had begun speaking for me.”
Socorro looked up at me. “You know what he did then, my father? He told me that he was proud of me. For looking out for Carlos’ education. And he was proud of Carlos too, for bringing me back home safely. I couldn’t believe it. We had tricked our father, stolen money, and drank mezcal and he was proud of us! He told us to go out into the orchard, gather some lemons, and then come in to have the evening meal.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“That’s it,” he said. “We went out to the lemon trees, and with the ocean viento bringing salt to us, we picked the fruit from the the trees until it grew dark.”
“He never knew?”
“He never showed it.”
“You speak like a poet Socorro.”
“We are all poets on our deathbeds.”
“You aren’t going to die right now.”
He stared at me. Glanced out the window. Outside, snow had begun to fall. He began to cough. “They all rush to your side you know.”
“The dead come back to you flushed in color to carry you home and you almost feel as though they have been with you your whole life”
“You aren’t going to die tonight. We’ll take care of you here.”
“Bring that thing here around your neck.”
I pointed to my stethescope. “This?”
“Show me how it works.”
I took it off from around my neck. He took the instrument into his hands and fumbled with it for several minutes. “Let me help you,” I said, taking it from him, helping him put it on. Tufts of hair poked out from his brown ears, and beads of sweat had collected like glass marbles on his brow. The smell from his body was rank and nearly overpowering.
“This finds your heart, eh?” he asked, placing the bell on his chest.
“It’s difficult to hear on you.”
“I’m a fat man,” he said.
“Well,” I laughed.
“No, I know this. My heart is buried deep inside. You must be a good doctor to be able to find it.” He closed his eyes and listened. It was quiet in the room for several minutes. The hands of the clock moved on the wall. The snow hissed on the hot vents on the hospital roof. The phlebotomist’s cart clattered in the hallway.
“I hear it,” he said finally. “It’s whispering. Socorro, Socorro, Socorro.”
He took the stethescope off. “This is some magic that you practice, finding the lost hearts of men. Will you do this for your whole life?”
“I think so.”
“You will travel?”
“Yes, I hope to.”
“Will you go to Jalisco?”
“I might,” I told him.
“You won’t,” he said. “But now you will carry the name of that place with you. The knowledge that once, my father built us a home there. Put it away in your files, in your charts.”
“I will, Socorro.”
“Why is my body yellow?”
“Your liver,” I told him. “It’s failing.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It is the juice of the lemon trees at my father’s house in Jalisco,” he said. “It is surging now in my body.”
He closed his eyes. He slept for awhile. When I came back to check on him the next day, he was in the intensive care unit still asleep. Encephalopathic, our attending said. Mental confusion. “Where are you right now?” the attending asked him, shaking his shoulders. “Tell us where you are right now.”
“In Jalisco,” Socorro murmured, opening his golden eyes in a moment of pure clarity, plainly, as if it were a stupid question.
“You see,” the attending said smiling, looking back at us.
I walked home that evening in my winter coat, the snow falling fast and strong. I saw the smokestack rise beside me sending plumes of white clouds into the sky, like an exhalation, a breath that held our reluctant and witheld grief. I walked home with this thought, the ice in the black lake cracking and freezing again, the world around me glowing, and in a small act of retribution in my room I began to write.