“Coghlan Station” by Mempo Giardinelli

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My friend, Luis Delgado, who, like me, always wanted to die on time, is now waiting for me to kill him. Every afternoon, he asks me to do it. He can’t speak, but I know he wants me to kill him. He begs it of me with his eyes.

My friend wants to die. He needs to die. Quadriplegic, he has been in a wheelchair for the past three years and I have witnessed his deterioration, his growing depression.

He loved trains and used to be strong and healthy, the type of man people naturally compare to the toughest of trees: so-and-so is like an oak, they might say, or is as stalwart as a quebracho tree. That sort of praise of physical strength turns pathetic when heart failure, or even a misstep, an unfortunate fall, leaves a body a wrecked heap.

Photograph by Beatrice Murch.

It is also pathetic (more so than paradoxical) that it should be me, the weakest of the two, who now rolls him around the neighborhood, broken and expressionless like he is, sitting in his wheelchair like a doll with worn out springs.

My friend, Luis Delgado, is now a broken man, his strength collapsed. It is ironic and shocking how he looks back at me now (in a manner of speaking) with that expressionless gaze that, I cannot be sure, but I imagine, is perhaps filled with resignation, gratitude, envy or bitterness.

I go by to see him every morning, from Monday to Friday. I push him onto the elevator and take him out to the sidewalk and around the block. Then it’s up and down the platform at Coghlan Station, first on one side, and then the other, watching the trains go by and looking at the always serious, focused faces of passengers waiting to board the train or disembarking. Then I sit on a bench at the end of the platform, on the Saavedra side, and calmly read the newspaper. Every now and then I accommodate the blanket over his legs, to let him know I am attentive to his needs. I even comment on current political affairs, and it seems to me he understands. I don’t know. It seems like it to me. Or I want to believe it. He used to like debating national politics. He would devour two newspapers every morning and write incisive articles that he shared with friends; some were even published in La Nación, in the letters-to-the-editor section.

When the 9:18 leaves the station headed for Retiro, I take him back home and return to the station to take the 9:37 to the office.

That has been our routine for three years now. Ever since the morning I was informed of the attack that fell Luis. And, well, that is how this — one might call it — tradition or custom began, of taking Luis for a stroll every morning, from Mondays to Fridays. Not on weekends, because then he stays with his sister from Carhué and I go down to the boat club to row. I spend the night there and return home late on Sunday.

One day I noticed that he was especially sad. Or at least it seemed like it to me; I know him well, after all. I sensed that he looked down at the rails with unusual intensity as the trains entered the station. It was very strange. I turned to face him and asked: “Do you want me to push you off the platform?”

It seemed to me that his eyes brightened and his look regained that intensity, and in that way he said, “Yes.” Besides, I believe I saw the left corner of his lip rise in an attempted grin, and that seemed to confirm his affirmation.

It’s that on more than one occasion – when he was still healthy – we discussed these ideas. I, myself, have always said, and my friends know it, that the most beautiful act of mercy they could do for me is help me end my life should I ever end up like Luis. I believe in euthanasia, in our right to do what we wish with our bodies, and to decide when we want to die. And if the help of another should be necessary, may that person remain free of guilt and responsibility.

I’ve joked about it during the past 30 years, and my kids even make fun of me when I bring it up. Everyone who knows me knows that I am brutally honest when I joke about death, about being committed to a geriatric center, and other such cruelties of life. These jokes are nothing more than superstitions and wishful thinking dressed up in black humor to mask my fears.

It is notable that the person I most discussed these things with was Luis Delgado. I can even say that we practically formed a pact. Implied, but, given our mutual trust and understanding over the last 20 years, as friends at work and in life, a pact nonetheless. It held that whichever one of us was healthy would throw the invalid from a balcony . . . or under the wheels of a bus or a train. Whatever was necessary to put an end to the doubtless suffering of the other. It goes without saying that neither wanted to serve as the other’s executioner, but the wish to avoid becoming the helpless victim of some dreaded disease or tragic accident was stronger still. Each one of us depended on the other to spare us such a humiliating deterioration. It was never said, but we always thought that such an act would be one of pure love, a noble gesture that demonstrated the mercy and generosity of one friend toward the other, trapped in a state of constant suffering.

Life is like that. The things we dream of sometimes do come true and inexorable events cannot be warded off by talking about them beforehand. Superstitions do not always hold. Not always. Sometimes what we wish for most comes to pass, and other times it does not. Life is more of a lottery than a science, and an event isn’t any less likely to take place just because we thought through it and reflected on its possibility. Not even a wish has the power to make something real.

What I mean to say is that I had a feeling these things would come to pass. From one day to the next, I’ve seen a change in his gaze; there is a new shine in his eyes, though, I know, it does not mean his health is improving. What does it mean? A request for mercy? Is he begging? Is it a wish that cannot be expressed? A demand? Who knows. But one thing is certain: I feel the intensity of his silent desire growing. Why, just yesterday, I sensed that his eyes searched for me the entire time, and I had the sensation that he was requesting, or rather demanding, something. I even asked him if he wanted to tell me something. I begged him to at least blink to indicate yes or no. But, of course, his eyes can’t move. He can’t raise his eyebrows or move his fingers. There is no way of knowing what it is he desires. You always have to guess, maybe make a flat out mistake, but yesterday I felt that he wanted to tell me something. And I know what it was.

But I can’t. That’s the truth. It’s not that I don’t want to, because I know it would be a relief for him and for all of us:  for his relatives that are spending money on him that they can’t afford, and even for me. I dedicate an hour a day to my friend, every morning, and there is no denying it has an effect on me, because it does . . . a tremendous effect. I love Luis. I’ve loved him for nearly 20 years. But I can’t. I ought to be able to. But I can’t.

Sometimes I despair. Last night I had a horrible dream, and the week before, too. I despair because I’ve been planning it, and I realize that I have it all perfectly figured out. I thought of how I’d do it, how it would all go down, and I always tell myself that one of these days I’m going to go through with it. While we walk along the platform, I can pretend to become distracted. For instance, I push him along with one hand while I hold La Nacion in the other, which, because it is an oversized newspaper, has always been difficult to handle. Then, as if by accident, I trip. The wheelchair gets away from me and he falls onto the tracks just as the 8:47 to Retiro pulls into the station. I scream. People around me scream. The train screeches to a halt. I become hysterical, proclaiming my guilt and my pain at the top of my lungs. The station chief calms me down while the police are called. The rest would involve mere paperwork, because no one would have any reason to suspect anything. I am his best friend, a selfless sort with no interest beyond taking my nearly lifelong friend out for a stroll. I’ve been doing it for three years. Everyone in the neighborhood has seen us.

But I can’t, I can’t, I just can’t because of the guilt. Not the guilt of doing it, but the guilt that comes before, that I feel right now and every time I imagine the “accident” and see it play out like a movie in the cinema of my mind.

But we all have our limits and I can’t take it anymore. That is why I decided to speak with Claudio. He is one of my most reliable lifelong friends. He is a priest now, living in Oregon, in the United States. When we were schoolboy pals at Don Bosco, we swore we would be friends forever, and we’ve kept that promise. He is godfather to my oldest boy and the only person I fully trust. And, besides, the last time he was in Buenos Aires, he met Luis Delgado. I’m not religious anymore. I don’t even consider myself a Christian. I don’t know. Maybe I’m an agnostic, an atheist, an unbeliever. Whatever I am is unimportant. What matters is that I feel guilt as if I were a Jew.

I obtained a visa and bought an airline ticket. My flight leaves tonight. I should be at Ezeiza International Airport by 7:30pm. Within 12 hours.

And while I shave before heading over to see Luis, like I do every morning, I ask myself if I’ll be able to do it, if I’ll be capable of, let’s say, this generous act for a friend I love. And I tell myself I’ll do it, and that from the moment the plane takes off and during those long hours before we arrive at Portland, the only thing I’ll feel is damned, infinite guilt, as deep and immense as the ocean below. I don’t know if Claudio will  be able to grant me absolution, but I do know that he will at least understand and not judge me, and maybe he’ll know what I should do, how I should live my life from now on.

Translated by Dario Bard from “Estación Coghlan” as published in Estación Coghlan y Otros Cuentos, published by Ediciones B Argentina, 2005, available from Amazon.

Mempo Giardinelli is an Argentine writer and journalist from Resistencia, Province of Chaco. During the last military dictatorship (1976 – 1983), he lived in exile in Mexico. In 1985, he returned to Argentina. In addition to short story collections, he has written several essays and newspaper columns, as well as award-winning novels. English translations of the latter include Sultry Moon and The Tenth Circle. Additional information available at his website.  

The Fundación Mempo Giardinelli is dedicated to promoting reading and contemporary Argentine and international literature, as well as sustainable development in northeastern Argentina through cultural and community activities.