The Primary Substance
World Literature Today|Autumn 2020
Stuck in traffic during a downpour, a driver faces a peculiar dilemma.
Sergio Gutierrez Negron

Juan Carlos saw the man die in the car to the right, in the middle of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam that made no sense. Despite the downpour that conspired with the heat and threatened to drown the world, he saw the man’s head bash against the foggy window. He swore he heard it, even if the only thing capable of piercing through the deafening noise of the endless vehicles and the weather was the useless and faraway whistle of an officer who had been guiding traffic in that thoroughfare since Hurricane María, two years ago.

“That guy is dying,” he said, with the hope that saying it out loud would start something. He looked through the rearview mirror at the car behind his. The woman who sat in the driver’s seat seemed not to have noticed what had happened. Her head was cocked to the side, her shoulder raised, and a phone pinched between the two while she studied her nails. In the vehicle in front of his, he could only see the heads of three kids bobbing as if on the surface of the sea.

A drop of blood crept down from the spot where the head had smashed. Juan Carlos put the car in park, unbuckled his seat belt, and leaned over the passenger’s seat so he could see better into the man’s car. The rain and the window blurred the red substance, but it was still there, visible, slowly pushing to the right like an arrow that pointed to the slumped body. From what he could see, the man was heavy, way too big for his vehicle; one of those small, yellow Toyota Celicas that were suddenly everywhere on the island at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The man’s head was caught in the gap between the driver’s side door and the headrest. His eyes were wide open and looking up at the sky, as if pleading. He was still. So, so still. It could’ve been a seizure that knocked him out, Juan Carlos told himself. If that was indeed the case, somebody had to intervene as soon as possible.

He’d seen one such seizure in the classroom of the private school where he worked a while ago. He’d been there only for a semester, replacing a social studies teacher who had died of leptospirosis, like so many others. When he was brought in, he was given minimal guidance. The principal handed him the standards and expectations of the sixth grade, based on the Department of Education’s old curriculum, and told him he was responsible for module 1, unit 4, “Change and Continuity.” His first week on the job he was expected to cover “significant contributions made to the history of world society and culture through the figures of Abraham, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar, Thales of Miletus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Jesus Christ.” The following week he had to go through Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Confucius, and the Buddha. His role was basically to check off all of ancient history in ten days, two quizzes, and one exam. He was a Spanish teacher by training and barely recognized half of those names. He confessed to the principal, but she shrugged it off and told him to stick to the preprepared lesson plans and reading guides that the textbook company provided and everything would turn out well enough. If he was so inclined, he could probably find some fun stuff on YouTube to complement the lessons, she added, before leading him out of her office. Very little was being asked of him, and this would be reflected on his paycheck.

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