My tooth still hurts. Why are the lights so strong? There’s a fused one there. Should I move? That footrest will help me relax. But it might be too dim. That won’t be good for the pain. Maybe I could quickly show it on the second floor. Just pop in and out. But then I’ll lose my spot. Or maybe the doctor will come running out to tell me she’s dead, “She popped.” Stop it! Don’t! Don’t! Just think about something else – the phone. “I’ll be there in forty-five mins. Love you Dad”. It’s almost two hours since she sent that. Why does she lie? If it’s going to take longer, just tell me. If she’s not around when her mother dies, too bad for her. Don’t give me false information. Or display your guilt – “love you Dad.” How’s that going to help me from ending my wife’s pain? Why don’t they just smother her with a pillow? I should have done that last week, just ended it. She wouldn’t have had to go through all this. I should have saved her from this embarrassment of clowning around in gowns, strangers wiping her mouth, sponging her behind, poking and shoving things in her. It’s my fault.
It really is too bright here. Damn! That fat cow just sat down on the lounger. What’s she in the hospital for? Must be serious and someone close for her to have transported her fat behind all the way here. Still, she doesn’t look sad. No one of hers is dying I’m sure. People should get seats assignments in the waiting area just like patients get ICUs. Everyone considers the person dying, not the one waiting. I should have my own lounger chair reserved. And a neck pillow thrown in for the toothache. Fat Cow over there is probably here because her son has a wart on his left butt cheek. This tube light is blinding, like heaven. No, don’t think about that place. The pain, focus on the molar. Ok, it’s really shooting up now. Like someone tapping you with their finger from the inside. Sally Menkin’s used to do that while sitting behind me during Chemistry back in school. I wonder if she’s married. Has to be. God she was annoying; tapping away with those pink painted nails. And now my jaw feels like it’s being slapped by nail polish. Bright pop colors cutting through my mouth. I think I’m going to cry. Will anyone notice? Maybe they’ll move me to where fat cow is sitting.
“Sir, will you be more comfortable in that chair with the foot rest,” the nurse smiles.
“Why yes,” I breathe relief. “But it’s occupied.”
“Oh, that fat cow?” her dainty hand points like an arrow. “Don’t worry. We’ll move her to a less significant floor. Would you like some gel for your tooth?”
But there is no uniformed angel. No one is looking at me. And the noise of people chatting, wheelchairs spinning, babies crying, old bodies weeping, confused scratching; resisting actions that are keeping the waiting room from burning under the lights and uncertainty.
I don’t want to be alone. Not when it happens. But it may not happen. She’s a fighter. She’ll pull through. At least for a few days more, maybe even a month. Where the hell is my daughter? She’ll be the first person I’ll have to tell. And her damn phone will be jingling as I say the words: “She’s gone,” some pop ballad vibrating in her purse, suffocating the solemn moment. But I won’t yell. Her mother won’t patch things up this time. I have to be more accepting.
That family just looked at me. No you idiots I’m not praying. Or cursing. I’m in pain. It’s climbing. The flesh at the bottom of my cheek feels like ice, but dry, cracking, refusing to melt. Please stop. Let her die. At least then I can focus away from the pain.
Distract. Think about the noise. Where is it taking me? I remember now. Wow. Yes, I haven’t thought about this in a while.
The tapping of the man with the cane is now in front of me and I can recall...see him. He looked too healthy to have a cane as he walked with a limp and stood next to me.
I escorted my parents to the museum and they left me alone to stare at Munch’s Scream while they stepped outside to do so at each other. I was fifteen, dwarfish, and unsure of whether to move about or stay put. The minimally handicapped man must have construed my anxiousness in front of the artwork as fascination.
“You like that painting, huh?”, the politely dressed man said. He was too tall to be even holding a cane, his back tumbling forward in exaggerated absurdity.
“I do,” I said by safer choice.
“Can you go on looking at it for another ten years?”
“I suppose so.”
We were the only ones in the big white hall at the time; the high ceiling spinning in unending vertigo.
“Twenty years? What about thirty?”, he interrogated with a calm sternness.
“I don’t know,” I said, wondering where my parents were, slightly afraid.
“They took my best friend captive,” he began. “Beat him, tied him up, even shot dead three of his company right in front of his eyes. He wept, but didn’t give them answers. Then they asked him what his favorite song was. “Three coins in the fountain” Alonzo barked, unmoved. But it was the truth. The melody had played when he asked his woman to be his wife. I know, I was there behind the rose bush in the park holding that brick heavy gramophone when he did. So they put him in a six foot wide cellar, with no light and a steel door with a tiny mail compartment from which rice and a satchel of water was thrown in daily. There was nothing in the room – no bed, no chair, just walls; dirt and blood ridden. Except, a speaker, high up on a corner of the ceiling where he couldn’t reach. And from this black mouth, “Three coins in the fountain” could be heard, slightly crude, but distinctly clear. And it made him happy. The memories it lulled were Alonzo’s only company in the dark. The only break from yelling, eating, defecating, sleeping. It became routine. The song played. Never stopped. Not once; repeating within a second of ending. It played for 58 days straight. You know how many times that is?”
“No,” I shrugged.
“27, 116 times give or take.”
I was young and had never thought about a specific number so large in any context before: road trip distances, money, vinyls, women, nothing. And I said nothing.
The man went on. “When we finally infiltrated the place, found him lying unconscious, surrounded by his own shit and urine, the song was still playing. Some of the guys lowered their guns, myself included, unexpectedly happy. We took in the music as the medical chopper carried Alonzo away. He stayed in the hospital for a few weeks. When he returned home, he made love to his wife and thanked God for surviving the ordeal. His wife threw a party. Everyone came. Then, just as dessert was about to be laid, Alonzo went to his study for a moment, returned and shot his wife in the head, killed four others and injured eight more before the cops arrived and shot him thrice in the chest. One of the guests had put on that same song in the drawing room player.”
I kept staring at the painting, not knowing how to react. Scared. The man too, didn’t study me for a reaction and just blankly observed the canvas. Then without haste or intent, as if out of habit, he muttered softly, “Nothing is beautiful forever.” And then he turned and hobbled off.
I stood there, alone, in the clinically atmospheric gallery, gazing at Munch’s colors, the shape of the tormented face, trying to locate despair, desperately fitting words from the brochure onto the canvas – I pictured my parents, I imagined Alonzo, I thought of Sally, but all I saw was a face that I didn’t recognize and it made me, strangely, happy.
The fat lady just got up. Now’s my chance. Hang on, there’s a nurse approaching her. They won’t send a nurse to relay distressing news. You know it’s not important when a skirt shows up to talk. That seat really should be mine.
I’ll wait five more minutes. This tooth is really getting out of hand. Wait. There’s my daughter, coming through the sliding door. Don’t rush you nincompoop. You’re late enough. Now’s no time to slip and crack your skull. Why did she bring flowers? Pink ones!
She’s still maybe fifty feet away, giddily skating
on the scrubbed tiled floor toward me, trying to gauge from my face
if she should be smiling or not. But I can’t smile or cry, numb
with pain and unknowing. Wait, the doctor just came out ahead of her.
He’s walking toward me also. They’re both marching forward.
He’s ahead, but she’s faster. I can’t tell from his
expression if it’s good news. Should I get up and walk toward
them? Who would I address first? The doctor’s white sleeves are
brush like, erasing the crowded air. My daughter’s raising the
flowers higher. The pink petals are hammering at my tooth, like Sally
Menkin’s nails. The light from the ceiling is cold, unforgiving.
I close my eyes, forget about the pain and try to picture my wife from
a long time ago, smiling. But all I see is the painting from the museum,
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