You are in a hospital waiting room. There is a rack of magazines nobody wants to read. There are chairs. These chairs are old and have a scratchy burlap-like consistency. Or maybe they’re plastic—newer hospitals typically have plastic chairs. Either way, the chairs are always uncomfortable—this is true of all hospitals.
Hospital stories always have a sick person by default. You do not feel sick. And you are in the waiting room, and there’s a nurse avoiding eye contact because somebody you love must be dying, and she knows it, and the doctors all know it, but they cannot say for sure until a litany of tests are performed. On television, paramedics always use defibrillator paddles on long-dead corpses, like they need to go through the motions.
You tear off a piece of a magazine. Time or People or Sports Illustrated. Maybe there is a copy of Highlights, but that seems more like a dentist’s office thing—you could complete the maze with a gigantic magic marker and show all the kids how smart you are. This particular torn-out magazine page talks about celebrity gossip. Or perhaps it talks about a new beauty trend. It talks about fine lines. It talks about pores. You don’t understand pores. At the spa, they always talk about opening your pores. In television commercials, they always talk about closing pores—shrinking, minimizing. Contradictions like these beget wars. Spa attendants dump boiling massage oil down the murder hole. Aestheticians fight back with hairspray flamethrowers. In this wartime article, there is a picture of a flagellating monk with flawless pores—macrodermabrasion. A before-and-after is blown up to 10x magnification, moon craters on one side and nubile skin on the other.
You ball up the torn-out article and toss it toward a nearby wastebasket. It misses. A Sports Illustrated tear-out might hit the mark. Your biceps swell at the thought of exercise—a body in motion. You feel vigorous in this hospital; your heartbeat clangs like cymbals, mocking the defibrillator paddles.
Despite the illusory gravitas in your veins, real displays of fitness are few and far between. The last time you played a sport was two or three years ago. Basketball, with your nephews; you had twisted your ankle and ended up in a doctor’s office. Office visits are lighthearted stories. They feature morality tales and bildungsromans and aforementioned twisted ankles. But this is not an office visit. This is a hospital. Hospital visits are fundamentally bleak.
There are other people in the waiting room, each busying themselves with magazines or panicked cell phone conversations or crying or bleeding through bandages or coughing. This looks more like a triage center than a waiting room. Everybody keeps to their own increasingly shrinking zones. Uncomfortable chairs fill at unpredicted speed.
A man sits next to you. You know that protocol dictates a polite smile, but no other pleasantries will be exchanged. Hospital waiting rooms are places of privacy and mutual solemnity.
The man digs in his pants and pulls out a pocket knife. You want him to slice off his earlobe and present it to you. Instead, he opens the pocket knife’s corkscrew attachment and retrieves a bottle of wine from deep within his backpack. Hospital stories are sometimes about toasts and celebration—like newborn babies. Or maybe alcoholism.
You dig in your coat and hope to find a pocket knife because there’s something romantic about carrying a pocket knife. Instead, there are crumbled Ritz crackers and a safety pin and three pennies and a balled up piece of paper. You decide that this paper must be a Sports Illustrated page, self-torn and migrated from a nearby magazine. You shoot for the wastebasket again. You miss.
A doctor whispers to the nurse who breaks her no-eye-contact rule. They both stare at you. You know what this is about. This is a hospital story. Somebody has died. This has been the obvious plot since before the magazine or the pocket knife.
The deceased individual is somebody close to you because this is a hospital story. It’s either Mom or Dad or Brother or Sister. Maybe it’s Uncle, but only if the twist ending is that he molested you, and the tender grief-stricken narrative disintegrates into a different type of hospital story. You view Uncle’s lifeless body, and it is cathartic, or maybe it’s anticlimactic because his death doesn’t undo the past.
Or it could be a baby. Or alcoholism. Or pills. It could be that Aunt is a drug addict with an elevated heart rate and blood in her stool and withdrawal and stolen DVD players and sucking off the doctor for oxycodone scripts. Or maybe it’s meth. Why do tweekers on television always have uncharacteristically good teeth? But it’s probably Mom or Dad or Brother or Sister. It’s cancer. It must be. That’s what most hospital stories are about. The big C.
The doctor and nurse read the chart in tandem like it’s a public declaration. You leave mid-pronouncement. Because this is a hospital story, but it isn’t yours.
James R. Gapinski’s fiction has appeared in Juked, Monkeybicycle, NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, and other publications. He’s managing editor of The Conium Review, and he lives with his partner in Portland, Oregon.