The October of his youth: three decades in a coma
Waking up after 28 years, a man walks outside
by Bondo Wyszpolski
[Author’s note: Jô Soares, Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza, João Ubaldo Ribeira, etc, are Brazilian writers. They’re sitting at a cafe in Rio de Janeiro (in March of 2002) and telling one another their ideas for the novels they hope to write. It’s another vignette, overheard years ago when I was in Brazil and taking notes. We join them here in mid-conversation.]
“Anyway,” Jô Soares began, having fired up another Cherokee from the crumpled pack in his shirt pocket, “it’s early morning on May 26, 1973, and Marcos Alcindo has been reading the morning news and catching up on world events: Skylab, the first space station, has been launched, the Watergate hearings have begun, and Nixon’s now admitted to having a hand in the cover-up. Closer to home, he noted that Peronist Héctor Cámpora had just been installed as the President of Argentina.”
“And that lasted, what, a month and a half?”
“Marcos Alcindo showered and shaved and was walking with his briefcase to the trolley stop when an errant soccer ball bounced over a fence and struck him in the back, causing him to stumble forward. As he did so, his legs became entangled in the leash held by a young lady walking her dog and Marcos Alcindo then fell sideways, banging his head on a fire hydrant, which the dog had just vacated. A crowd gathered. Marcos Alcindo was unresponsive. Paramedics arrived and carried him to the hospital.“Twenty-eight years went by. Marcos Alcindo’s vital signs remained constant but he never emerged from his coma as his doctors and the hospital staff had predicted. As those years vanished there were new doctors and student nurses, some not even born in 1973, and what family members there were simply stopped coming by to visit. Besides, who wants to blather sweet nothings to the same old, aging vegetable? But one day, and as groggy as one can be after slumbering for three decades, Marcos Alcindo opened his eyes. He looked around, tried moving his arms, his fingers, and fell back to sleep. An hour went by and he woke up again. It was the middle of the night. He was later to compare the sensation to that of running out of gas on a desert highway, that feeling of being stranded in nowheresville.”
“Like when the novels we write aren’t going anyplace. Boy, do I know that feeling.”
“Clearly, he was coming around, and it wasn’t long until the astonished hospital staff noticed it too. Finally, being able to speak, Marcos Alcindo asked about people and events, and mentioned how pleased he was that “The Godfather”—remember that one?—had done so well at this year’s Academy Awards and that Secretariat had won the Kentucky Derby. Well, needless to say it was evident that the poor soul still thought it was 1973 and this realization placed his doctors in an ethical dilemma. We can’t tell him flat-out it’s 2001, they said, conferring among themselves, so let’s give him time to recover, to regain a little stamina, because it’s gonna be a shock when he learns how many World Cup matches he’s missed.”
“You mean they wanted to deceive him as to what year it was?”
“That’s right,” Jô Soares replied. “And here’s what they did. First off, they had to swear the entire hospital staff to secrecy. Secondly, whenever they entered Marcos Alcindo’s room they had to wear outfits similar to what they—or rather their predecessors—were wearing in 1973. The same went for hairstyles, makeup, jewelry. Also, they were not allowed to speak of current events; and to complete the deception a backlog of old newspapers and magazines were ordered and brought in daily to the patient’s room. He was even given ‘the latest’ novels.”
“Jeeze, I can’t remember what I published in 1973.”
“Soon Marcos Alcindo was sitting up in bed and reading how OPEC had raised the price of petroleum by 11.9 percent, how Secretariat had become the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years, and that Juan Perón had returned to Argentina, which precipitated the Ezeiza massacre in Buenos Aires when snipers fired on left-wing Peronists.”
“Ancient history,” said Luiz Alfredo. “Nobody remembers that stuff now.”“No,” said Jô Soares, “but the charade had to be perpetuated so that Marcos Alcindo wouldn’t know how long he’d been conked out.”
“He could have looked in a mirror,” Minolta said. “If I suddenly aged twenty-eight years I’d be ancient, over forty, and I think I’d see a difference, with longer hair or something.”
“Our dark-eyed Rapunzel,” joked Luiz Alfredo.
“No mirrors,” Jô Soares said. “They were very careful. And no coins minted after 1973. (Good point! We saw how this oversight doomed Richard Collier in “Somewhere in Time”—author’s note) The problem was, the staff had begun to enjoy this little game of theirs, and perhaps perversely kept Marcos Alcindo in the dark far longer than he should have been. And of course one day the joke backfired.”
“Ah! Someone let the cat out…”
“No, not quite. Months had gone by, and it was now early August of this past year. Shuffling back to bed from the toilet, Marcos Alcindo found that the door from his room to the corridor had not been properly closed, which meant it wasn’t locked. He opened it slowly and peered up and down the hallway. It was 3:30 a.m. and no one was stirring.” “Not even a mouse,” quipped João Ubaldo. “However, instead of stepping out into the corridor in his pajamas, Marcos Alcindo rummaged through some drawers for a bathrobe. What he found instead was one of the ‘1973’ outfits that an orderly named Blanco changed into whenever he showed up for work. It shouldn’t have been stored there, maybe it had been left in haste, but there it was, mistakes happen, and Marcos Alcindo not only found it, he sensibly changed into it before venturing out of his room. In this way, he managed to leave the building and soon found himself on an empty boulevard with dawn just about to break.”
“An empty boulevard in São Paulo? Those were the days!”
“He was out of breath, as we’d all be if we never walked more than twenty steps at a time, and so he sat down to rest. When he opened his eyes, for he must have dozed off, the sun had come up and the street was filling with cars and pedestrians. Well, he wasn’t quick to put his finger on it, but people seemed different, the cars all looked different, and somehow the buildings had grown taller. Marcos Alcindo was puzzled. Something was different. Fishy, as they say. He walked or perhaps hobbled a little farther and then spotted a newspaper that had been tossed upon the stoop of a business still closed at that hour.
“What jumped out at him was a photograph of our beloved Jorge Amado, who had died the day before, on August 6, 2001. Marcus Alcindo snatched up the paper and looked for a place to sit down. He was dumbfounded. The paper said that Jorge Amado was eighty-eight years old. That couldn’t be; hadn’t the writer been born in 1912? Someone was very poor at math! He saw references to Argentina’s President de la Rúa. Who was that? Another headline mentioned Bolivia’s new president Jorge Quiroga, who stepped in when Hugo Banzer resigned because of cancer. The next column over had a story about the Peruvian government demanding that Fujimori be brought to Peru. Marcos Alcindo was aghast. What could Peru possibly want with a Japanese politician, quite a bigwig, too, from the sound of it? But what puzzled him far more were references to our own president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Remember, the dictatorship had been in full swing back in ‘73, when Emílio Médici was wielding the big stick.”
“Who can forget.”
“Finally, Marcos Alcindo noticed the date of the newspaper. Was this a hoax? An April Fool’s edition? But then he again looked at the cars and the way people were dressed. Someone’s radio blared the latest hip-hop atrocity. Now he was really scared, and he made his way back to the assumed safety of the hospital, still clutching his newspaper.
“Out of breath, exhausted, he paused several times, but finally opened the door to his room. Doctors and nurses turned around and looked at him in astonishment. They’d never seen him in street clothes. ‘Senhor Alcindo!’ one of them blurted out, ‘We’ve searched all over for you! Great God, where have you been?’
“His eyes darting from one face to another, Marcos Alcindo took his time, stood up as straight as he could, and tossed the newspaper on the bed. It landed with its headlines glaring up at them. ‘Where have I been?’ he said. ‘Well, just look for yourselves: I’ve been to the future!’” ER
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