Boswell: “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson: “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.”
The Orange Tabby looked in my eyes, and I gave a half-promise to return. I entered the dark and wheezed my way to my car, fell into the seat, dropped keys into ignition, and wheezed my car away. I crossed my chest and prayed. When I parked, I stumbled my way to the door, hunched over and wheezing. My chest felt as if a fat man sat on it. My labored breathing caused additional pain. Then, I arrived at the door. “Closed at 8:00 PM. Enter by Emergency Room Entrance.” I wheezed and sighed. Is this an emergency? I asked myself. I walked down the sidewalk, hunched over and hoping. At the end of the sidewalk, I stopped. Across the way a large sign read “Emergency Room” with an arrow pointing down a dark road. I huffed and puffed my way back to my car, drove down the dark, followed a few road signs surrounding construction. Then, I saw the emergency room and went to park.
But the lot was small and every space was handicap. I cursed Something and parked at the door.
“Where does one park?” I wheezed, frustration on my face. I held my chest. “I’m having chest pains. I don’t even know if this is an emergency.”
The nice lady pointed me to a back lot, behind Do Not Enter signs. I passed them, parked, and stumbled passed ambulances, back to the Emergency Room, avoiding long draws of breath.
I looked the man, Donald, in the eyes and explained myself. He nonchalantly looked back at me, as if surprised I was there.
“Oh… Sign in please.” He casually pointed to a small pad of paper, keeping his eyes on his computer screen. “So what’s the matter?” he asked when I sat down.
“My chest hurts. It’s painful to breathe.” I answered.
“Okay… how tall are you?”
“Five-ten,” I said confidently.
“How much… do you weigh?”
“One-forty,” I said, take or take a few, I thought.
“On a scale of one to ten… how bad… is the pain?”
“Uh, seven,” I said, trying to associate pain with numbers.
“Okay… wait over there. I’ll call your name when we’re ready for you.” Donald pointed to a waiting room, eyes locked to screen.
I rose to leave, then Donald resumed.
“Hey… do you smoke?”
I sat with my back to the television, facing most of the Others, about twenty. I sat hunched over and tried to distract myself without pulling out my phone as the Others did. I studied the floor panels and thought about how cheap and new everything looked. I watched an old man pace in sweat pants. Gray hair poured out behind his black cap. He wore what looked like an old Sand Diego Chargers jersey, numbered eighty-five. That’s not an Antonio Gates jersey, I thought. Looks like he’s kept it since ’85. A few seats down, a homeless man in athletic pants and a black hoodie spread butter or jam over a slice of wheat bread with his finger. He had a jazz patch and black hair. In between bites, he drank Sprite from a small can. I prayed. Then, I heard Donald call a name. For the next hour, Donald called several names that rose, entered two wide doors. Every now and again, Donald rose. He was a tall, aging man of about fifty. He walked with hunched shoulders, more quickly than he talked.
I gave in to my phone, but justified it with the reading material. I read an essay of ghosts, witches, and blood.* I looked at the Others. I resumed reading of zombies, downtown screams, pulled hair, emergency lights, chins-on-chests, gurneys, lead-foot runs, zombie stumbles, faux blood, human blood, red eyes, eyes, vomit, empty smiles, sirens – I heard my name and saw Donald looking at me. I wheezed over and saw him holding a white paper bracelet with words on it.
“This you?” he asked. It was. He placed it on my wrist, and I felt trapped, felt like one of Them. When I returned to my seat, my stomach knotted. I noticed other bracelets and felt as if in a secret club that no one wanted to join. I went back to my essay and felt comfort with the ghosts. As one does in waiting rooms, I looked at my comrades and thought about my death. I thought about how its quite un-human, nearly blasphemous not to fear it.
“Donald… Donald! Where’s Donald!?” Donald looked up from his screen at us. One of my comrades pointed to the lobby. “Oh… Donald went that way? Popular name you know. Donald… It will be the name of our next president.” Mild chuckles. I winced.
My essay ended, and I switched reading material. A play about abortion and life. For several minutes, I lost myself in dialogue and prayer. When I finished, I looked around at my comrades and thought that maybe the pain was receding. Why am I here? I asked myself. The old man in the Chargers jersey now sat, jittery. The homeless man slept, slouched greatly. I prayed. I convinced myself the pain was receding and tried to take large, labored breaths. I rose, went to the desk, and explained that I would just leave. “Huh? You’re next. Come with me.”
I followed Donald down a quiet hallway where he motioned to a second, empty waiting room. I asked where the restroom was.
“Restroom?… two doors down on the right.” He pointed.
I walked to the second door. It read “X-ray.” My brow furrowed, and I looked for Donald, but I found myself alone. I sank into a seat and listened to silence.
I was ushered back to the first waiting room. “How long will the results take?” I asked. I was told an hour. I sighed.
“Is the restroom down that way?” I asked another man at the desk, afraid to ask Donald.
“Yes, just down on the right.” I followed his orders but did not see a bathroom. Eventually, I entered a large, lonely foyer. I looked in vain for a bathroom then saw a large blue sign, reading “Restroom” with an arrow. I walked down a hallway, looking left and right. The hallway veered left, and at this junction was a large blue sign that read “Restroom” with an arrow. I followed this arrow, and came to another blue sign that read “Restroom” with an arrow, eventually wheezing my way around to a familiar looking waiting room. I was again alone and thought about Donald. Then, I saw a doctor appear in a white smock.
“Sir. Excuse me. Where is the restroom?”
This man looked confused, as if I should know, or that I was living. But he pointed down the hallway, the same hallway Donald had sent me. Two doors from the end, on the left, was a restroom.
Back in the waiting room, I watched and listened while Donald grilled a new comrade. The man was bent over, sobbing and holding his shoe, and Donald asked him the usual questions: height, weight, pain. Then, just as the man was going to be sent to the waiting room, Donald asked, “Hey… Do any drugs?”
“Meth,” the man sobbed.
“Okay… wait over there.” The man walked to his seat, sat for a few minutes but slowly sank until he lay on the floor, sobbing. Minutes later, he was taken away.
A security guard entered and Donald pointed to the homeless man. “Yeah… he needs to go. Been here too long.” The homeless man was woken up. He asked the guard for five minutes and if he had change for a twenty. I have learned that the question is properly interpreted, “Do you have a twenty?” Five minutes later, he grabbed his belongings and left. I prayed.
At midnight, I was discharged a healthy, sane man. I slept and woke six hours later. With blurry eyes, I mounted my bike and headed to school. My chest was still sore, but I now at least knew my heart and insides were healthy. I thought about Donald, single-shoed men, spreading jam with fingers, the living, and the last ten hours. I decided to take a deep breath to test my chest and heart. It stung slightly. But I felt also that I inhaled a great gulp of life.
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Painting: “Waiting Room”
By Donald Matthews
Oil on board, n.d.
*That is, R. Eric Tippin’s Trifler, No. 30 [On Halloween]. The following list is taken directly from this Trifler.