The Fifth Floor

Manuel Baixauli

Artwork by Olaya Barr

Only two months had passed, but when B had climbed the three floors to his home, exhausted, stopping often to catch his breath—he had no elevator—he felt as if he were returning from exile.

He’d been discharged that morning and had left the Sanatorium with the aid of a crutch. Skeletal, emaciated, a scarecrow. Alive. He decided to ask only for a crutch; he’d tried it out in the hallway and had gotten over his fear. In just a few days, he had gone from bedbound to wheelchair, wheelchair to walker, walker to two crutches, two crutches to one.

Before getting into the taxi, B had turned and stared at the old building. Would he return? “It will be five years before we’ll know how far along you’ve come,” the neurologist had told him. “But in a year, we’ll know if you’re coming along.” B would have liked for some scientific authority to explain to him why he’d had to go through this, to reveal the logic that had led to it, whether inside or outside of his organism, to be shown there was an explanation for everything. But when he questioned them, the doctors gawked at him, eyes empty like deserted houses.

Would he return there, to the Sanatorium? Contemplating that immense rectangle lined with windows behind which human figurines appeared and disappeared, B hadn’t thought about his salvation or the new life that awaited him; he had simply asked himself yet again what might be there on the fifth and last floor, why they kept it under lock and key, with the rolling blinds almost completely lowered; and he went on ruminating as the taxi took off on a winding road downhill, and the Sanatorium shrank and vanished behind the pines.

For the past two months, B hadn’t wondered whether he would return home or no, he hadn’t thought once about his home, his papers, his books or LPs . . . his brain had been faraway, lost, as though in battle, absorbed in a single proposition: survival.

He had left the apartment for the last time early one morning, feet sluggish, enervated, with a bizarre tingling; had grasped the handrail in the stairway, feeling sure they would be able to tell him what was wrong when he got to the emergency room. Now, bearing down on the crutch, his body almost forty pounds lighter, he realized he’d just missed being fitted for a coffin.

Fifteen days after returning home, he stepped out on the street again and began to cross paths with his neighbors. Many knew what had happened, the news of his torments had spread like windblown ashes, and with time, more than one person had added scurrilous embellishments to the tale. Some made frightened faces on seeing him: they’d assumed he had kicked the bucket. A ghost, they thought. Even to himself, B had looked like a ghost that first day he had made it out of bed at the Sanatorium, had set off in a wheelchair, and had seen himself reflected in a mirror. Cadaverous, loathsome, ghastly. He didn’t let it worry him: he was on the upswing after the fall, euphoric at his recovery. His appearance, like so much else, no longer worried him.

There were neighbors who saw the crutch and asked if he’d sprained his ankle. They knew nothing of the past two months; they were speaking to a long-lost B, a B from before the accident, a B who was now his ancestor. He also bumped into so-called friends who pretended not to see him, who walked suddenly to the other side of the street.

After remarking, “The important thing is talking about it,” certain of his neighbors added, with a gleam in their eyes: “You need to write it down.”

“What?” B asked.

“The experience you’ve lived through.”



B: I can’t move anything but my fingers. I barely have the breath to speak. “Diminished vitality,” the doctor says. When people lean in to hear me, their ear close to my mouth, they mix up my words, what they hear is often the opposite of what I’ve said. Soon I won’t be able to talk. They will misinterpret me completely. I can barely breathe. They’re going to intubate me.


A week before the illness, B finished a novel he had been working on for three years. The working title, just to give it a name, was Future. A terrible title; he knew that, knew he would have to find a better one, but at the time all he cared about was photocopying the text and passing it along to four people he trusted, to have them read it and get their opinion.

He never did it. A week later, he felt his toes go numb one night while walking to the filmothèque in Valencia. The Outlaw and His Wife by Victor Sjöström, an excellent silent film that B will forever recall with disquiet, because he watched it with his toes stepping into hell.

Future might well have been a posthumous work.

Hell proceeded in phases. There were the first five days in the hospital, a modern setup with young doctors and nurses, where the paralysis that had started in his toes rose up his legs, with the occasional hiatus—mortifying, because it gave rise to false hopes. At night, it came back with particular cruelty, and fires broke out along his spine.

B experienced the process of dying in bed: progressive debilitation, dormancy of the body, loss of breath, a whiff of fear . . . and he would have died had he been born in an age before the invention of artificial respiration, not so long ago. He would have vanished, and nothing in the world would have changed, just as nothing changes whenever a neighbor dies.

But there was artificial respiration.

When B couldn’t breathe on his own, when his “vitality” had flagged, they transferred him to the ICU, plugged him into the respirator, and covered his body with cables. In five days, he was reduced to a stone with thoughts.

He spent forty-two days in the ICU. Forty-two days that don’t fit in a phrase, a page. Forty-two infinite days that don’t fit anywhere. And after this eternity, once through the desert, B began to move again, slowly. First, his fingers, then his hips, his elbows . . . Feebly, B began to breathe without the machine, to speak, in a laggard voice, gravelly, opaque. And he started to eat. First: a spoonful of strawberry yogurt. He had never liked strawberry yogurt, in principle he still didn’t, but that spoonful seemed the most succulent meal of his life. A spoonful. That was all. Immense fatigue, unyielding satiety, noose-like, kept him from trying another.

When they transferred him out of the ICU, B left hell behind. Despite all the torments his body still visited on him, he was grateful to the universe, which had spared his life. He had a future.



B: Where am I . . . ? And these pains all over my body, as if it were shut up in a drawer? I need to move. Why don’t my hands, or my arms or legs, respond? A machine is beeping intermittently along with a tingling in every limb, suffocation, electricity inside. Isn’t there anyone near? I’ll shout. Impossible! There’s a tube in my mouth! I shouted in my mind, looked for some short circuit that would release me. The beeping of the machine speeds up, grows sharper.

Someone approaches. Gently, quietly examines me. A green smock. He consults the machines. Takes my hand, says, “Relax. Your blood pressure’s rising dangerously.” I want to grab him, plead with him not to leave me, but my hand and arm ignore me. The man prepares a syringe, injects me with something. I can barely make out his face, my eyelids slip downward. He looks young, with short, blond hair, bright eyes. His demeanor reminds me of Beckett. He observes me serenely, the way a person on a precipice watches another down in the ocean while he drowns.



The modern hospital, having no gym, proposed to send B to the Sanatorium, an older hospital, some ways away, for long-term patients, with rehabilitation facilities.

The heat was stifling when B arrived at the Sanatorium; the ambulance driver hadn’t turned on the air conditioning, and B had no voice to make himself heard. When they removed him from the vehicle and carried him into the Sanatorium, he relished, for twenty seconds, for the first time since he’d fallen ill, pure air, frigid air, insolent, bracing.

They lifted him from the stretcher and laid him on a gurney that would be his for the remainder of his stay at the Sanatorium. In a room lit with bluish light, filled with medicines and medical instruments, with the air of a mechanic’s garage, a doctor poked him on the sole of one foot—to test his sensitivity, he said—and for a few minutes, this soured his mood. Down the hallways, through the elevators, they led him to what would be his room: spacious, with a window that opened onto the woods, and three other resident patients. There was a dreadful difference, B noticed, between this hospital and the previous one: here everything was old, badly lit, airless, ugly, neglected. The doctors were old, the nurses, assistants, and orderlies were old—some bordered on decrepit; they looked drained, jaded, eager to end the workday and leave. The patients were almost exclusively ailing grandparents with prognoses ranging from grim to hopeless. When they left B with his three roommates—octogenarians each and every one—he bemoaned ever having come there. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end.

The next day, something raised his spirits: they furnished him with a wheelchair. Already at the hospital, they had started sitting him up. His muscle mass was decimated, and at first he could stand it no more than fifteen minutes at a time. Buttocks and sacrum shot through with pain, he would beg them to put him back in bed. But, day by day, the pain decreased, until finally, he could sit for more than two hours straight. That first morning in the Sanatorium, B tried out the wheelchair, and found he could get about on his own: not only along the hallways, but even through the garden surrounding the building. He quickly got used to the chair; despite the weakness in his arms, his roommates no longer saw him apart from mealtimes and lights out. The bedroom was stuffy, the invalids grumbled and snored to no end, then there was the constant splash of piss in the plastic bedpans, the tedious chitchat with family members, the stench and the lack of fresh air. It was a crime to be shut up in the Sanatorium, with these woods all around, stretching further than the eye could see.



B: The man smoking the cigarette in rapt contemplation of the arabesques of smoke. The uproar of the children on the school playground. The newspaper, first thing in the morning. The neighbor out shopping gabbing it up at the greengrocer’s. The smell of coffee. Books. The sound of a pencil grazing paper. The scent of the sea. The aimless stroll. Others, known and unknown. Clothing on clotheslines, flapping on the balconies. The drop of cool water . . . where is it, all that?



Bit by bit, B got to know the inhabitants and hidden corners of the Sanatorium, and that made it dearer to him, despite the building’s unmitigated shabbiness. He figured out how big it was and what an array of spaces and inmates it contained. It was a long rectangle, symmetrical, with a spacious hall in the center of each floor, a corridor on each side, and rooms to the left and right. B slept on the left wing of the first floor, reserved for miscellaneous paralytics. His neighbors included apoplectics, sclerotics, sufferers of embolism and thrombosis . . . In the middle of the first floor was a cafeteria, which the patients were prohibited from entering, and a dayroom with tables and armchairs and magazines that had passed through countless hands. The right wing served those who had undergone amputation. The fourth floor was devoted entirely to psychotics. They were the youngest of the hospital’s clientele. B ran into them every day in the garden, which was the part of the Sanatorium he liked best.

The garden surrounded the building and could be enjoyed in its entirety thanks to a labyrinthine paved path accessible to wheelchairs, albeit with an abundance of pits, cracks, and protuberances. Since he spent as many hours there as he could, B memorized these hindrances to evade them and avoid irritations, and he moved among the trees, bushes, and chaotic, overgrown foliage as if it were a second home. There were charming little hideouts, but most of them were taken. The patients, especially the crazies, were wedded to their routines and had laid their claim to all the best spots. The square with the fountain, its little jet trickling into a pool five meters across, its cloudy water clogged with water lilies, to take as an example. The sound of the jet, the sight of the reflections in the water, the parsimonious movement of the leaves, was a massage for the mind. In summer it must have been a joy, being there. But B had arrived in the harsh days of winter, and the human fauna made it all the colder. The psychotics had overtaken the square with the fountain, who chatted or nodded or stayed still and stared, obsessively, into nothing.

TIMOTEU: Of the many gazes of man, the most profound is the one into the void.

It was in the garden that B noticed for the first time the windows of the fifth floor of the Sanatorium, their rolling blinds lowered, some halfway, some entirely. Why are they down? he asked himself. Isn’t anyone there? And then he made out, in the half-light in one room, the upper half of a person in a red tracksuit. The man looked at him, then disappeared, then passed with a guitar by another gap in a window, then disappeared again like a child at play.

For B, the move to the Sanatorium had been a wise one. Not only did he have freedom of movement and splendid natural surroundings, but the physical therapy exceeded his expectations. The gymnasium was ample, with windows that spilled light onto the wood and metal machines that at first had struck him as inscrutable, but that he had soon grown accustomed to. Every morning he exercised for an hour. The bad part was the company: frail creatures, devoid of future. Some hoped to return home and to live a life, however fraught with limitations, others would only leave in a pine box.

On the road to recovery and to complete mobility, B found, that first day, his Virgil: a physiotherapist who would become, for B, the physiotherapist par excellence: Físio. Físio began treating him by chance, because she was free and B was seated in the wheelchair waiting for his turn. Físio said to him: “Come on, I’ve got you.” An hour later, before B departed, exhausted by his first session of calisthenics, Físio added: “I’ll take care of you every day from now on.”

Drawn From Nature

The river, narrow, its waters clear as glass, makes a sound that recollects remote music. On the bank, two young people. Tall and slender, the boy sits in the sun leaned against the trunk of a pine tree, in khaki shorts and a white shirt with rolled up sleeves. She is fuller-figured, in a printed swimsuit, black-and-white, smoking a cheroot with her feet in the current, letting it massage her while she tosses an occasional stone into the water, where it lands, leaving ephemeral geometric ripples. They talk about who knows what, now and again they laugh. She stubs out the cheroot, edges closer to him, takes sandwiched and drinks out of a backpack. They eat lustily. For dessert, grapes.

He lies out over the turf and shuts his eyes. She takes a notebook and pen from her backpack, looks for the ideal angle, and starts to draw him.

She sketches out the shape of his arm, fills in the details, shades it. As she finishes the drawing of his arm, the extremity itself disappears from his body.

Afterwards, she draws and shades the head. And his head disappears.

When, twenty minutes later, she has finished the drawing of her friend, she closes the notebook and returns it to her backpack, throws it over her shoulders, and vanishes.

By the river, nothing remains but the murmur of water.

translated from the Catalan by Adrian Nathan West