WE DROVE BACK INTO TOWN on a Saturday evening in September. “Sober September,” I had been calling it because I hadn’t had one drop of drink since the wine festival at Õisu Manor at the end of August when I emptied perhaps two bottles of red wine and found myself seated at the “political table” on the estate grounds where I rubbed elbows with Helir Valdor-Seeder and pretended to have something profound to say about Estonian politics. “And you? You support Isamaaliit, don’t you?” I remember asking of Seeder. He had nodded and said, yes, indeed, he was a supporter of Isamaaliit. The lights of the Õisu Manor growing dimmer and blurrier, blinking. All that sloppy drunkeness, people slinking off toward midnight rendezvous in the bushes, and then that ride home with the party goers singing “Mustamäe vals.” That had been the summer’s last big soiree.
After that, I had pledged not to drink again. I looked forward to a month of clarity, of prolific writing, of pure sobriety, but just because I was having a sober September didn’t mean that everyone else in Estonia was. As we pulled up the hill, I spotted a solitary figure walking down its center, right in front of the old Orthodox Church that the Soviets once used as a morgue. A solemn, stick figure of a man, clothed in a black jacket. He was walking a bicycle up the hill. We waited and then I drove the car around him. I parked the car and my daughter got out.
As she did, the man reached the crest of the hill and collapsed. It was a stunning, dramatic fall. One moment he was standing, the next he was flat against the ground, the wheels of the bike were still spinning beside him. A crumpled pack of cigarettes had tumbled out into the street. The man was still.
“Let’s go inside,” I told my daughter, who watched the man with a curious but unconcerned look. “We’ll see if he gets up.”
From the window of my bedroom, I peered out the curtains to see the man had curled into a fetal position and was still sitting there beside his bike. I decided to call an ambulance. The dispatcher peppered me with questions. “Are you sure he needs help? Can you go and ask him if he needs assistance?” I went outside to check. He had a gash in his face that ran from his forehead down his nose and was bleeding. “Do you need help?” I asked the man. He just waved me away. “Does he need help?” she asked again. “I don’t know. He’s bleeding.” “How old do you think he is?” “I don’t know.” “Guess.” “Maybe 50.” Maybe. His hair was thinning, but he could have been my age too. He could have been younger or much older. Alcohol does things to your body.
Just then a jogger with a headband arrived, as if from some parallel universe. I handed the phone to him. “She keeps asking me if he needs help, I don’t know what to tell her,” I said. The jogger spoke with the dispatcher and with the man. The man just mumbled to us, “You people are too good for me. You don’t need to help me.” An ambulance finally arrived and three medics in red overalls jumped from its back. “We’ll take it from here,” one of them told me, “after you help fill out the accident report.” The jogger ran on, and I filled out the report and went back inside. The medics helped the man. He declined to go to the hospital though, and pulled himself up with his bike and walked off.
Years ago, I had tried to describe the people like this that inhabit every community in this country. I had used the word pööbel (riffraff) to describe them but it had been the wrong word. Watching that man saunter off, realizing that he was just a street or two away from another emergency call, the right word occurred to me. The man was desperate. These were the desperates. They collapsed in the roads of the land, haunted its parks guzzling bottles of beer in the summertime, sipping vodka in the winter. Once, when we were driving south through the mist, a man ran straight out in front of the car. He wouldn’t let us pass, so we drove around him. At first, I thought it was a moose.
My daughter reminded me of the “man in the fog” later. Something about both stories troubled me. My indifference, my lack of compassion. The man had said we were good people, but I was no longer so sure I was good. I had become too accustomed to the sight of a fellow human being in anguish. I searched my heart for some traces of kaastunne, but I couldn’t find any at all. It was buried in there though, somewhere.
It had to be.