by Jonathan H. Scott
Most of us watch the aquarium. A black-and-yellow fish is bullying the others. The water and the coral and the pebbly bottom all seem brighter than real life, vivid and clean. Few things are so clear. It’s clever of them to put the aquarium in here, in the center of the room where we can watch and feel a little better about things.
I watch the fish but also the other faces. Some of them are near, visibly worn and tired. Others are distorted and seem almost happy through the tank water or some slant of light from half-blinded windows. Some look down and stare blankly at magazines whose pages haven’t turned in thirty minutes. A few look around and catch awkward glances from others like myself and them.
Like myself and them. Now that’s a thought. In my youth, I would venture into forests just to get lost, just to find my way out. My way out. In the forest, it’s just you and towering pines and light-blocking poplars. You don’t ever see the bears but you know they are there, somewhere, and for this you walk slowly, vigilant and queasy. But if you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t do it. When all of flocking humanity tended towards unanimity, I felt compelled to stand alone or, when failing at that, to get lost. Even these days, I often go inside of myself. Not in the usual introspective mode of the laity and the sane, but inside an actual place, in the folds and dimples of my gray matter in the manner of monks and lunatics. I go there to get away. When I was young and well enough—to the forest. Now, not quite-so-young and not near-so-well—to my right parietal lobe. That’s why out here, watching us watching each other, askance or through fish-water, I am slightly discomfited by the sudden kinship.
My wife, Linda, on the other hand, is quite at her ease and her magazine pages turn at a credible rate. Not that she is apathetic or inured. She is at peace. She has come to know and trust the process. It’s just, as she tells me all the time, the way she is. She’s been in nearly as many waiting rooms as I have, and for that I am grateful. But in certain moments I admit a little jealousy if not plain old spite. What a thought, this one. She is here. What else could she be, given the physiological limitations of walking in my shoes? She waits with me. She is here.
And that’s more than I have always been. On the day that her mother died, I was locked up in county jail for a second DUI. She never answered the phone when I called for bail, and I had the nerve to be angry. Every hour or so, one of the gruff officers would buzz my door and I’d try again. As I became more sober, my anger began to subside. I wondered where she was, picking at the flecked paint of the concrete bed and assembling a line-up of possible adulterers. Backward thoughts, those. Who would I be to complain, even if? But there was and is no if. It’s just not the way she is. Thoughts of infidelity gave way to macabre visions of her mangled by an automobile accident, in a ditch, pinned to a tree, begging me for forgiveness—forgiveness for letting me wait in my cell. I played out the scenario again and again, substituting gruesome details for worse gruesome details; but no matter how the horror began, it invariably ended with her apology. For my dissipation, my incarceration. My specific and general faithlessness. And I forgave her. Readily.
But when she actually came and looked through the smeared, tempered glass of my cell and shook her head, I tasted the tang of spite—that old penny at the back of my throat. Now that she was there, unblemished and unharmed, seemingly at her leisure, I was momentarily contemptuous of her presence. There I had been, hour after hour in the dank, colorlessness of the county jail, on the verge of vomiting, insane with worry, and all of a sudden she ambles in, an exasperated savior, and ambles out in the space of thirty minutes.
I did not learn about her mother until later that night when I asked her why she was crying. She said it quickly, matter-of-fact: “Mom died. Last night. Her heart.” I sunk into my pillow and listened to her sob. For hours.
Another thought just in: What if that occasional taste of spite is because of her presence? Not because she can’t walk in my shoes but because she would if she could. Could it be that I’d rather be alone? Me with my bears? Me with my concrete bed? Me with my disease? It seems possible. I rub her thigh and go back to the black-and-yellow fish who, for now at least, seems to be bored with bullying.
We wait because the machine is not working. Or, as the lab tech put it, “Out of order.” God help us. Like a gas station restroom or a beer-sticky pinball game—out of order. It doesn’t seem quite fitting for something whose part will cost tens of grands. Moreover, that pricey part is rumored to be no bigger than “your wallet.” Gary-of-the-ponderous-beard had said as much in the other waiting room—the much smaller, male-patients-only waiting room. He said, “Heard them go on about it this morning. Knew then it would be a long day. Say the thing ain’t no bigger than your wallet.”
To the others’ amusement, I replied, “Well, if nothing else, it’s a thin son of a bitch.” Shortly, we were told we could go back to the larger room with our families and friends. For most of us this applied, but for Andrew-of-the-agate-ring, it was cause to stay seated.
“You ones go along,” he told us, “I’ll keep an eye on things here.”
“I’ll send Andrew in there when the machine is up or to keep you posted,” said the technician (whose name I can never remember), as if Andrew, seventy-five and dying, would be proud of such a trivial chore, like a kid whose mom lets him scramble the eggs.
Andrew said, “That’s right. That’s what I’ll do. You ones go along.” And he was proud, you could tell, happy to serve some purpose. I must learn the technician’s name. Not a bad guy. It’ll be So-and-so-of-the-cologne-like-motor-oil.
I tell my wife that I think the receptionist has a thing for me.
“Vice versa,” she says. She’s right.
“Seriously,” half-seriously, “she keeps looking at me. How do I look?”
“Like hell with mustard on his cheek.” She’s right again. Although the mustard is news to me. Makes sense though. We went and got burgers after we were told the news about the machine. In the best of times, I typically keep some souvenir of my most recent meal—be it on my cheek as now or on my shirt as usual. Even without condiments on my face, I’m struggling in the handsome department. Sometimes, though, one forgets he is not the same relatively fit, passably attractive gentleman that he was in the beginning. Even in the first couple of weeks, one signs in at the front desk and smiles bravely at the orange-haired, well-proportioned receptionist as if to say, “I know, I know, but one does what one has to do.”
Now, three weeks in at five times a week, I look like hell. Mustard or no mustard. My face is bloated from the steroids and sedentary life-style. Sedentary is a problem when you have recently quit smoking and all you can do is eat. I keep waiting for my appetite to diminish. It seems, in fact, to be on the rise. It pleases my oncologist if not the orange-haired, red-lipped receptionist who today is wearing a black deal barely to her thighs and boots nearly reaching the same from the other direction. My wife informs me quite regularly, the style being the rage, that even in death she would not be seen in the foot-fashion of hookers and go-gos. Her words, not mine. And mostly I agree, but geez what a look. I’m a hypocrite. But no worries, I am punished for my barbarism. Besides the bloat, I have half of a head of hair, which half is only barely soldiering on in wiry, sparse patches. The bald half showcases a dime-sized mole and a five inch scar that is more like a dent. I wear a hat, but who am I fooling?
Coming to terms with ugliness, in one’s self or in others, is the ultimate achievement. How life breezes afterwards. But, until then, it’s a gut-wrenching cynicism and penny-tasting loathing.
Outside and distant, an ambulance wails. I try to use my amateur acquaintance with physics to determine its comingness or goingness, but nothing doing. One thing’s for sure—it’s bad news. The ride itself, though, from the gurney’s-eye-view, is not so bad as you might think. Sure, you’d rather be fishing; but given the circumstances, it’s comforting to know that you’re on your way toward help and comfort and doing so fast. It’s nice to visualize the traffic parting and pulling off on shoulders all for little old you. Sad that most of us need a medical emergency to garner such social deference; but what the hell, take it when you can get it. It could be worse. You could lead a healthy life straight up to death’s door and pass through without a peep—no siren, no priority, no fleeting fame. The siren, whether it was coming at some point or not, is gone.
A little shark I haven’t seen before is giving what-for to the black-and-yellow fish. The table has turned. Taking advantage of the distraction, the other fish venture out of a sunken ship and scour the sides of the glass for clinging, tasty morsels. Soon enough, the colorful fish blur into the foreground and I am drawn to the pockets of air bubbling up from the black filter tube. Large and small, the bubbles chase each other to the top, to the supposed freedom that leads to their death. Such thoughts! And from bubbles, no less. But again the objects blur and I am simply mesmerized by the movement. And the movement could be anything, anywhere. Tallow-bellied clouds slugging across the cerulean sky, a forest of leaves coruscated by the sunset beyond, a quarter-slot-machine on the fritz—spinning, spinning.
In my spellbound state, my thoughts unwillingly tend toward the upcoming procedure. No matter what we say in the smaller waiting room, it’s never no big deal. For brainers like me, they secure a molded plastic mask over your face, tight, by fastening the back of it to the cold, hard slab you’re lying on. The mask is meshed and eyeholes have been cut out to keep you from going insane with panic, as if the fact of your pinioned face was not sufficient to that end. The several technicians and students then leave the room and it’s just you and the monstrosity that circles your head like an alien probe. The lights dim. A metallic voice comes from beyond, as if from the ether, “We’re going to start now.” And it begins. A click and buzz. They say you won’t feel anything, but that’s bull. Your brain is melting. However subtly, you can feel that shit. It’s a milkiness that starts in your skull and deliquesces, flushing into your extremities—a sensation that would almost be pleasant in other circumstances but presently is horrifying because it is beyond your control. All you can do is try to get used to it, but just when you do, the machine stops abruptly and for a few seconds you have time to forget. The alien arms rotate and then again with the buzz and milkiness and this time you detect the faint taste like metal on your tongue. They say it’s just your imagination. Maybe so, maybe not. They, unlike you, are not locked and loaded.
“Curtis says the part’s here but they’re not sure it’s the right one,” says Andrew-of-the-agate-ring, looking somewhat out of place in the main waiting area but proud, you can tell, of being privy. It occurs to me that I’ve only ever seen him in the smaller room. It also occurs to me that Curtis must be the lab tech’s name and hence Curtis-of-the-cologne-like-motor-oil.
The wife of a dozing patient, the wattle of her neck trembling with incredulity, says, “Not the right one! How is that even possible?” I agree. As if some teenager at a fast-food joint got an order wrong. As if the multi-million-dollar machine is a foreign car being worked on by one’s cousin mechanic who only has the job for the kinship, not for any reputable skill. As a matter of fact, I felt better when the machine was simply out of order. There is some hope attached, at least, to that thought—an element of fixability. A wrong part, on the other hand, is hopeless—good, perhaps, for another time but utterly extraneous at present.
The orange-haired receptionist senses a patient’s revolt. She stands, shrugging sympathetically, and offers to go see what gives. I let her know that we would be grateful using the voice that I think is sexiest given the circumstances. My wife shuffles the pages of her magazine. She is rolling her eyes. I know she is without looking. The young lady smiles and of course I read into it. I have no choice but ogle as she walks away. How else to solve the riddle of her plump, pale knees levitating between skirt and boots? How else discern the freckles on her naked arms? An image of us in the tangle of a tryst flits into my brain, flickers like a shorted-fluorescent and blips out, leaving my bowels a little twisted and warm. My wife chortles. I know she is rolling her eyes. I am glad she is here. No one wants to be alone, really. What with all the bears.
Gary-of-the-ponderous-beard threatens to go home.
“I tell you what,” he begins and those of us who have shared the smaller waiting room need not be told what but know that they will anyway—it’s Gary-of-the-ponderous-beard’s favorite refrain. “If I ran my business like doctor’s do, I wouldn’t have no business.” Gary is retired from the U.S.P.S and this isn’t a doctor’s office, per se, but the point is well made. “Who else can make an appointment with you and show up hours late? Why make an appointment? Why not just say, ‘Come in if you want, we’ll see you if we can.’”
Many heads nod. But no one actually goes anywhere.
My wife finishes her magazine and replaces it on the table beside her.
“You all right?” she asks, leaning into me.
“All right how?”
“All right anything. You tired? Dizzy? Fed up?” She is asking from experience.
“I’m all right. You?”
“No complaints.” She takes another magazine from the table without bothering to look at the cover and licks her left thumb.
My wife. Linda-of-the-epic-patience.
Of-the-matte-brown-hair-and-saintly-footwear. Of these things, too. Such thoughts.
The receptionist wrings her hands as she walks slowly back to the alcove of her work-station. At first it seems she will not speak, as if she’s trying hard to think of a reason not to. She picks up the telephone, dials, and speaks to someone softly on the other end. We are all watching her. What do we expect? Somehow great things. Loaves and fishes. A dream of racial and religious unity. Four score and seven minutes ago, more than that really, our machine brought forth into this waiting room a grave uncertainty, but
now . . .
I feel bad for her. She’s twenty at best. Probably taking night classes at the CC. Someone more official should come and tell us what gives. But I am not surprised by the conspicuous absence of white coats. It’s the way of the whole world. Professionalism is gone with the McDLT. A strange recollection, this. Keep the cold side cold and the hot side hot. No such thing anymore. It’s all petrified cheese and emulsified lettuce. And now here’s this poor, pretty girl tossed to the sharks and black-and-yellow fish.
She rifles through the appointment sheets, counts the signatures, and makes notes on a pad of legal paper. She has cleared her throat four times. She will have to speak. She licks her lips. They are red. No . . . pomegranate. Wide and glistening, the merest space between them like lacerated fruit . . . like a fissure in flesh . . . oh lust, you are an untimely beast . . .
“If everyone will be patient, I am going to call your names,” her voice is shaky, “in the order of your appointments.” Gary-of-the-ponderous-beard humphs snidely. “And could you please come to the desk,” she indicates the counter from which her disembodied head speaks, “and you can reschedule, if you want, or simply skip this session.” This option is well-received and will be taken, I am sure, by all of us. “Just let me know.” Her eyes are watering, her green, no, her emerald eyes . . . wide and glistening like . . . “Sorry for the wait.”
In most cases, significant others go to the desk as emissaries of the frail and fatigued patients. Time after time, they offer to simply come tomorrow—no need to reschedule this session. But now I am wondering if somehow my treatment will be affected. Is the session-skipping even a real option or just the helpless solution of a hapless girl? Will one session, one day, without the concentrated matrices of radiation prove fatal, or at least deleterious? I will reschedule, tag one more day to the end of my regimen. I have no plans for that day except I was going to celebrate by staying in bed. I feel relatively fine now, but they say the last week is brutal. The body has had all it can take, thank you, and pushes itself away from the table, needing a nap and, steroids permitting, a bowel movement.
The receptionist does not look up. I think she is crying. Or trying poorly not to. Either way, my heart is wrenched. My throat clenches and I struggle to say, “I’d like to reschedule.” She looks up. Her eyes are waxy with tears—a semi-solid membrane exaggerating her irises. “If that’s OK,” I add.
“No, it’s fine. I just need to . . .” She pushes back from the desk. The blotter snags on her tennis-bracelet and falls to the floor—splat—flat, right-side-up, followed by the schedule sheet and various pens which, as if in a cartoon, land neatly arranged on its atlas of ink-stains and doodles. This will be the last straw, I know, the final shockwave that cracks the dam.
A tremulous hand over her face, she rushes out the double glass doors of the waiting room, pauses in front of the automatic door in the lobby, hurries through, and breaks into a skirt-and-boot-limited jog across the parking lot. She gets into a blue Civic and drives away.
An awkward minute passes.
Curtis-of-the-cologne-like-motor-oil enters the waiting room from a side door I have never seen used. I have always imagined a supply closet stacked precariously with linens and vacuums and Lysol and outmoded medical equipment. That the lab-tech just walked through it strikes me as a mystical moment. He comes, a bashful oracle, clearly with a message as yet unarticulated at the back of his tongue.
“There’s been an accident,” he manages, at last. “The machine fell.”
We all gasp and I’m not sure at what in particular. Has the machine become a friend of sorts—one we have grudgingly come to know and appreciate? Did our hearts sink as if we too had fallen?
Linda raises the real question: “What do you mean it fell?”
“On top of Skinny. He was under there, doing whatever it was he was doing, something came loose, and it fell. Cracked his skull, knocked him flat, he’s lying there, paramedics coming, I think, shit, I don’t know. The blood is so red. I never knew . . .” He is saying too much. Sometimes shock takes a few minutes to catch you; but when it does, it’s usually blindsided and violent. “So red,” he says again and walks, possessed of an eerie, artificial calmness, back through the door.
What, if any, action should we take? I have heard about silence that screams, so absolute as to blare; but this is new—the confusion in cacophony, the exclamations, the top-pitched frustration is so noisome and unconnected that I hear nothing. I retreat into my right parietal. My tumor is in here with me. I am used to feeling it from a distance—from my other lobes, I suppose; but now I have joined it. I am inside the absence. Because that’s what brain tumors are. Somatically, yes, they are growths, cystic and tangible; but the real space they delineate is filled with nothing or, at best, a vague notion of something missing. Like the subconscious knowledge of the unpacked meds sitting on your nightstand as you grind farther and farther away down the interstate. Like the vacuous pit in your guts, so dull and distant, that prophesies an impending appendicitis but in unrecognizable tongues.
In here with my tumor, perceptions are dull. The outside world moves in slow-motion—not as in a touchdown being reviewed but as in a dream. And the dream is pointless. You in a chef’s hat making mud-pies or you in a cloud and becoming rain. Dull and pointless but perfect for keeping the sharper perceptions at bay—those sundry terrors of an active brain in full synaptic barrage. From here, through the glial-veneer, the waiting room is in a light fog on a placid lake as seen through the wrong end of binoculars. The fish are glugging through wiggling arms of refracted light. Sounds are subdued. Like a silenced pistol going thwup, like a muted guitar string going pung, so are the voices and actions of the outside, public space.
Gary-of-the-ponderous-beard paces between the aquarium and the receptionist’s desk. He is talking to himself and making, it seems, some progress in coming to terms with the event. The dozing patient is drowsy but awake. His wife’s wattle is wiggling synchronously, it seems, with the hiccups of her incredulity.
Andrew, seventy-five and dying quicker than the rest of us, of-the-agate-ring, is tidying the waiting room. As if compelled by a mission, he moves from table to table making neat stacks of the magazines. He stands behind the several empty chairs and aligns them just so. He looks like a golfer lining up a putt. Or an unlikely (not to mention untimely) feng shui guru. His ring glints in the fluorescent light. I have never seen him so vital, so purposeful. Something in the anomaly feels right—like his is the correct universe, a truly unparalleled universe, and that it’s safe to leave my brain. He draws me out . . .
My wife is gone. I don’t know where. Bathroom, maybe. Outside to sneak a cigarette, probably. I go in search of her. In search of her sanity. In search of the way she is.
Four hours ago, the air outside was almost cool. Now, as I step through the automatic glass doors, the glare and heat of the sun is oppressive. My eyes ache and blink for several seconds. Despite being somewhat blinded, I can tell there is no one sitting by the fountain out front where I expected to find my wife in assignation with her “last pack” of cigarettes. There is, in fact, no one outside at all. The parking lot is half full of cars and SUVs. The heat wavers on the vehicle hoods.
I can smell smoke. Delicious cigarette smoke from somewhere. Most people, when they quit smoking, say they don’t like being around smokers. They say it is too tempting. Not me. Give me a passel of smokers, circle ‘em up, and I’ll pirouette with a torched Zippo. And it’s not nostalgia, no maudlin psycho-grab for the glory days. The things just smell good to me is all. I walk around the side of the building, following, as they say, my nose.
Fifty yards away, Linda is crying beside a roaring air-conditioning unit. Her hair flows skyward, swooshed by the fan. Not weeping, just barely crying. Like with her eye-rolls, I don’t need to see to know. It’s in the way her left hand cups her mouth and her right arm crosses her diaphragm under her breasts. Her cigarette still smolders in the mulch at her feet. I inhale deeply, savoring the aromatic burn of bark and tobacco, and start to approach her.
The fan from the air-conditioner must be why she can’t hear me. I boast of no elfin light-footedness. In the accumulating days of my disease, I lumber more and more. I feel like an intruder, like I have interrupted a kissing couple in an elevator or witnessed the spanking of a stranger’s child. How weird to feel unwelcome to my own wife’s sorrow. But it’s none of my business. Not sure why not, but it’s not. She hasn’t seen me yet and she won’t, I decide. Later, if she needs to know that I know, I will tell her. And ask why. Or not. Some things don’t require a Me to make sense of them. Life’s penultimate achievement: obviating the significance of self without annihilating the will to be. How things breeze afterwards.
I ease back around the corner, losing the scent of smoke.
Little geysers of sunlit water spit from the fountain. They form a circle around a preternatural frog-statue—mostly plaster-white but growing some greenness here and there in patches like melanomas. Such thoughts. Is that it? Is everything out of place to be cancer now? Everything misshapen, discolored, malformed, or even amusingly incorrigible? Have I become so cynical? Yes. And no. And who cares, really. Not who cares in the damn-it-all way. Who cares as in: who cares what something is called. Has there been a shift in the essence of beauty or ugliness? As in: who cares, or should care, I guess I mean, when caring leads to worry. Because worry leads to . . .
“There you are,” Linda says. I act surprised to see her.
“Here I is, now where are you been?”
“Bathroom.” She’s pretty when she lies. You can see the truth sprinting behind her eyeballs—an accelerated particle so fleeting it can only be known by the streak it leaves behind.
“Crazy, huh?” I point to the building.
“Understatement. You want to get lost?”
If only she knew. I am thinking of pines and poplars and bears, and the queasy thrill of being intentionally lost, responsible for one’s own discovery. When this is all over, I will take Linda to the forest and show her how.
“Should we stick around?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Something to be resolved or whatever. I don’t know.” On good days, my tongue is not as obedient as it once was; but right now, what with everything, I am at loss—not for words but for coughing them up.
An ambulance whines in the distance. And this one is definitely coming. It doesn’t take a physicist. This one is on the way. And it’s not for me, so there’s no need to wait. Let it come and get Skinny. He-of-the-wallet-sized-replacement-part.
“Yeah, let’s go,” she says and helps me to my feet.
She grunts with effort and I stumble into her. Straightening, I yawn. “I wonder where that receptionist went. She looked in need of comfort.”
Linda rolls her eyes.
She matches my goofy trundle with her arm around my waist. The heat off the pavement irradiates but in a good way. Beside a blue-painted curb, a pigeon flicks a piece of shiny plastic with its beak. We walk bumping hips. I smell the vestiges of mustard.
Jonathan H. Scott lives in Birmingham, Alabama. His poetry and short stories have been published (or are upcoming) in The Able Muse, Caesura, The Lyric, Measure, Muse and Stone, THEMA, and others.