The Bell

I’m in a waiting room at an oncology clinic.

Fluorescents in the drop ceiling hover, unscrewed by someone some time before. Tacky nicotine-tinted sconces push a dull haze on the fabrics of the room, patterns just to the right of paisley, all murky and mustard. The room is full and we all wait together, here, at the bottom of the dirty fish tank. Tall. Fat. New. Aged. We wear housecoats and suits and shorts. One of us wears scrubs, on break from a job that won’t be concentrated on today. We cough and sneeze and stare – what’s inside most of us escapes, connects.

My stomach growls with its fat privilege and I shift in my seat to cover the sound.

Wheelchairs bump into tables and knees, victims of thoughtless design. The clinic door opens and shuts, a clicking counter tallying. Staffers call names.

Pull.
Replace.
Pull.
Replace.
Small talk.
Sighs.

It’s my husband’s birthday and a friend we love is on the other side of the door.

 

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Who will bell the cat?

How heavy a bell can we find to slow him,
To anchor him.
How loud a bell for earliest warning?

Who will bell the cat?
So we can plan our retreat,
and escape.

 


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A man and woman with stiff spines and wounded gazes enter the waiting room. They didn’t talk the whole car ride over and they don’t talk now.

In the corner, a grey, thin woman sits up in her wheelchair, tells her paid aide, “I don’t want them coming in and finding me. Especially not her. Anyone but her.” She retches, and the aide catches spittle in a kerchief.

A mother in a housecoat is leaning on her daughter. She’s weak and bloated, but she is smiling. Her daughter tells her jokes, their gnarled hands fixed together.

The clinic door opens.

 

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Enter your name and birth date at the top of each page. Address and phone go here. There, the medicine you take. How much and when. Health history. What’s been cut out, added on, amended, burned, scraped off, filled in. How many nights you’ve slept in hospitals and why. On the back, enter the lies about how many drinks you drink per week and what else you’ve been up to. Last section: family history. Who got sick and for how long. Who died and who’s dying. Whatever you know, write it down. Consider the guesses and maybes and likelies.

Let us know if you have any questions.

We’ll call you when we’re ready.

 

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A slight woman in purple ambles through the clinic door and into the waiting room. Round red glasses arch into her ginger hair, a heart-shaped frame around a slight, long face.

“Have a good day,” the administrative staff offers.

She stops, grabs a tissue, wipes her nose.

“I won’t be back.” She says it in just such a way that I don’t know if that’s good, bad, or both.

I’m in a waiting room at an oncology clinic. I’m the only one left.

 

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4 a.m.

That bird outside is making its ugly Siamese cat sound. The couch quivers, naked, its shadow rising with the sliver of sun stealing past the shutters. Plates are balanced high in the sink, leaning on empty bottles and glasses left from last night’s birthday gathering.

The house feels big and swollen and abandoned but it’s none of those things. We’re all here.

My husband sleeps in a room facing south, our friend in a room facing north. There’s water at their bedsides. On the mantle, a clipping of Truman’s butterscotch fur pushes against a flaccid Ziploc bag.

When the fan oscillates, you can hear it shift.

 

 

Photo credit: “Hospital Waiting Room” by ulybug is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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