Waiting Room

Stephanie Arditte

Hell is a waiting room and Hades himself sits behind a sliding glass window at the receptionist’s desk. He smiles a big crooked smile and hands me a clipboard with pink printed forms and a pen on a chain, just to make sure I don’t pocket it. No souvenirs from this place. I sit next to my mom and I fill out the devil’s paperwork as flames lick my ankles and a hot, dry wind bites the back of my neck. She just sits there as I robotically spell out her name, birth date, and medical history. Her eyes are glassy, she does not blink or seem to notice the fat little demons in white lab coats who open the iron gates, La Porte de l’Enfer, to let one victim through at a time. Their red-skinned fingers beckon each patient forward, urging them to follow, offering false promises that something better lies behind the door, something that will set things right again. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Each patient/victim sits in their straight-backed chair, careful not to move or breath too loudly. They stifle coughs and make themselves as small as possible, peering over their dated magazines. Their beady eyes dance over one another’s faces, judging. They separate themselves from one another, refusing to see any common ties among them, clinging to the differences. I was once like them, thinking to myself, “I don’t belong here.” But then I would look to my left and squeeze my mother’s hand. Guilty by association.

By my feet sits a big, yellow envelope, fastened by a string, black letters printed down the side., “DO NOT BEND.” In that were four larger than life-size images of my mother’s brain, all printed on clear plastic. In that was what was going to tell us what went wrong along the way, and in that was the reason why things were never going back to the way they were before.

Before I was familiar with Hell, I misheard “waiting room” for “wading room,” an indoor oasis for people to explore. We would all roll up our jeans, knee deep in the cool, clear water. Some would splash and shriek happily while others would pensively stare at their rippling reflections. I would run my hands along the sandy floor, catching hermit crabs and whistling them out of their shells, begging them to poke out their claws and tickle my palm. Sea grass and lady slipper shells dusted the edges, softening the distinction between water and wall. This was a place where pens weren’t attached by ball chain to peeling clipboards. This was a place with no pens at all. There was nothing to fill out, nothing to sign, and no one to decide who was broken. When my skin had pruned from the salt water and goose bumps sprouted on my skin, I could leave. I could roll down the hems of my pants and walk out the door. I wasn’t a slave to the ticking clock mounted just out of sight, so I could hear the time passing but not see it or the prison guards at the desk.

That clock is the worst, and it’s the same in every waiting room, white face, black pointed hands, and a thin red line marking the seconds slipping by. It smiles the way my tenth grade algebra teacher did while she handed me my failing grade. Knowingly, taking pleasure in her control. The clock is the same way, gaily moving too slow and too fast at the same time. Hours are lost in that clock, sucked through a straw and into nothingness. I count the ticks in my head. 49, 50, 51. The numbers, those seconds, are instruments of the devil, let loose in my head, bouncing off the sides of my skull. Little mechanical flies, wings beating too fast to see, buzzing in and out, through my ears. Sometimes I think I’m going crazy. Guilty by association.

I was fourteen the first time I realized she wasn’t acting normal. Her eyes looked different, cloudy and unfocused, like she couldn’t see, or maybe like she could see something I couldn’t. I was outside in the backyard of our old brick house, sitting on the yellow plastic swing hung from my favorite tree, the tall oak whose branches we had to trim back each year when they grew too close to my bedroom window. I don’t know if those rogue branches were dangerous because they might fall and crush me in my sleep, or because, one day, I may have realized their convenience with regards to escape from my room for late night trysts. Either way, they were deemed hazardous to my health. The ropes were frayed now, almost too prickly to hold, but I didn’t mind because I wasn’t swinging anyways. I hadn’t trusted those old ropes since I was ten. I sat there, letting my feet drag behind me, deepening tracks in the dirt where the grass had long been banished. She came outside, that look in her eyes. She was speaking but I couldn’t make out her words.



-more muttering

-Mama, what’s wrong?

-51, 50, 49, then Calpurnia knew it all. Listen to her as we mourn the death of princes. She knew it all.

I say nothing.

-[screaming] She knew it all.

-Ok, ok, let’s go inside, please, let’s go inside right now. Come on, come with me, please.

-Listen to her, please, come with me, please. Her eyes focused on me for a second, loosing their glassiness, sharp, and intent. She dropped to her knees, then to her back, her eyes never leaving me. She was burning a hole in my forehead.

-more muttering

She’s never been like that again, at least not in front of me. No more screaming or outbursts. That’s a good thing I guess. I should be thankful, I am thankful. After she came back to me she was quiet. She spoke when spoken to, never more than that. Her words were short and vague. I don’t know what they did to her, or who did it, but I imagine they’re friends with the impish employees running this place, equally hot and fiery. I can see them prodding her with their pitchforks, making her cry. They returned her safely I suppose, unblemished, but they stole something from her eyes, and they haven’t lost that glassy film, the unfocused stare ever since.

They say patience is a virtue. Patience, the capacity to wait, to endure hardships without complaint. Patience, the ability to sit in a straight-backed chair, surrounded by flames chewing your skin, shooting the scent of your burnt hair into the room. Patience, the capacity to listen and pretend you understand as they chant their hellish songs, praising Haldol, Thorazine, Zyprexa. Patience, it was something that grew out of deciding I was old enough to be her keeper.