Yesterday was a scheduled off day for me, so I was volunteered to take my sister to a local hospital for some outpatient surgery. She has a nice job, with good insurance so this was at a fancy, suburban hospital. The interior of the place looked like a very toney Hotel: big plants, soft classical music, muted drapes, chair rails, everything chic.

It's odd for a place to look like a hotel, when they don't want anybody to stay the night and nobody here wants to sleep here either.

As I wondered up and down the halls waiting around I saw dozens of hosptial workers with the same tired, earnest faces. When I would talk to the nurse or a clerk I got the same understated concern. Optimism, carefully worded. They wanted to appear supportive, but years of failed procedures and sudden crises had probably made them cautious. It was as if they were only able to give the impression of empathy rather than the real thing.

I guess too much would wear you out in that kind of job, I don't know. It was just that the whole place gave me the creeps.

The halls were filled with quiet footsteps, noded chins and averted eyes. 5 floors of attractive furnishings filled with whispers and pursed lips. Vague smells of disinfectant, storage carts filled with multiple plastic containers and distant humming of lab rooms. The absence of natural sound.

I finally stepped outside to breath some frigid air. Huddled people raced to and from the parking garage. Outside geese flew over head, trucks honked on the nearby freeway and life was moving ahead at regular speed. It was a reassuring feeling.

We glanced at one another from opposite sides of the fluorescent-lit hallway. Upward glances from chins burrowed into our chests with worry, brief eye contact full of questions and empathy. I wanted to bring her a consoling cup of coffee and ask who she was here for-- what misfortune had clouded her life in that way that only those sitting in hospital hallways understand. Instead I just sat with my eyes glued to the white tile of the floor, picking at my cuticles until they bled.

It's a very particular kind of grief that looms here; the kind that induces grey hair in twenty-somethings, the kind that keeps you sleeping restlessly in uncomfortable chairs with puce-green vinyl upholstery, the kind that puts your life on hold for death. People caught million-mile red eye flights at a moment's notice for this grief-- for what? To sit in these uncomfortable chairs in these uncomfortable hallways, helplessly waiting for something to happen. Once you entered these sanitary sanctuaries, nothing was in your hands anymore but a styrofoam cup full of swamp water the cafeteria called coffee... and indefinite amounts of time passing, slow and excruciating.

I looked up again at the woman across the hall. She dug through her purse, pulled out a dollar, and stood up. Walking past me with her eyes intent on the toes of her shoes, the loud, largo clicks of her heels sounded down the hallway, ricocheting from wall to whitewashed wall, echoing like insomnia and a dry throat. Was it a father, a husband, a child, I wondered... but I knew I wouldn't ask. It's one of those unspoken rules; you just don't do that in a hallway like this. It was too sterile. Comfort was only the absence of a reverberating flatline from a familiar room. It was uncertainty that kept us here in uncomfortable chairs, stifled in the distant claustrophobic silence.


          I saw the country doctor, asked him what was wrong with me
                   Was caught unaware, accidental and devil may care
        Behind heavy curtains I see, bottles unmarked in front of me
                           Oh, nobody knows...the troubles I've seen
 
                                     --Bruce Hornsby, Country Doctor




You know how it is when you open a door and all the sounds from its other side come flooding in to meet you, all puppyish and insane, like the blowout party of the century was perpetually happening everywhere you weren't? When the nurse entered her room with the tray, the scissors and twine and who knows what else lined up and waiting, it was the total opposite of that feeling - the utter absence of noise in the hallway rushed in to meet her. It was like drowning in a sea of packing peanuts.

She hated stitches. It wasn't the needle that bothered her, nothing so mundane as that - as a kid she was always wandering around her mother's house with bits of metal stuck through the pads of her fingers or sitting on the deck, melting candle wax with a magnifying lens. She wasn't a destructive child so much as she was in awe of the transformative powers she commanded; the fact that things got to burn in the process was just a bonus. She liked the liquid quality of glass and translucent wax and needles, shiny like mercury. When she was immunized as a child, she imagined the needles placing little drops of liquid metal under her skin. Even as an adult she insisted it was these little bubbles that got her into trouble with airport security.

But she hated stitches; they seemed so artificial. It seemed to her that broken things that didn't get back together on their own, shouldn't. If the mirror she had put her hand through that afternoon wasn't propped neatly in the corner, whole and hangable when she got home, she would sweep in into a pile and take care of it in the morning, but she would never dream of gluing it back together. It had its chance and it blew it.

Technically, she reminded herself as a nurse appeared in the hallway with a tray, I blew it. It didn't shatter on its own. If pressed, she would have a hard time explaining why she had felt the need to punch her reflection and a harder time explaining why she had tried to do it twice. No one had asked. She hadn't yet decided whether she should be worried by that or not.

The nurse deposited the suture tray and left, and she became aware of her own breathing as she watched the door close. The florescents started buzzing again and the windows rattled in the cold. She heard a phone ring somewhere nearby and the deep, slightly wheezy sound of an old man's laughter. She heard sniffling children in the waiting room and crickets in the parking lot and maybe a crackly, distorted voice coming from one of those annoying drive-thru restaurant speakers across town.

She wondered if her hearing would stretch all the way to Los Angeles, to a different sort of home altogether, before the doctor came in to put her back together again, or if it worked both ways, if that kid kicking the soccer ball against the back of his garage was scared senseless by the sound of her breathing. Hey little boy.

She sat there, high on her wall, caught between telepathy and singularity. As the door opened to admit the doctor and as her senses were overwhelmed by the cold silence bouncing off the tiles in the hallway, she wondered how Humpty Dumpty had chosen which side of the wall to come down on and whether he would have had better luck with the barbarians.

I dreamt last night of Burma.
I was a gunner for my grandfather.
He wore three chevrons on his sleeve,
with a couple of rockers underneath.
By the end of it all,
he'd earn a nice diamond
to put right in the center.

He was damn proud of those patches.
They were new when I saw him last night.
He had a lucky strike
hanging out his mouth
looking like Clark Gable
when good ol' Joany lights his smoke in Chained.

He hollered out
Welcome Marauder;
Welcome brother.

And I knew
I was safe
in his command.

Dreams don't come easy in the hospital.
Too many tiny noises keep me up all night
so a good one like that is rare.
They say one more surgery
and this leg isn't gonna give out anymore.
A welcome home for good gift
from Martin Dempsey.
But you know a guy like that
doesn't even know me.

But in the dream
my grandfather--
he was a bloodhound,
hot on the trail
and first on the track.
The type of man you knew
would get you back

home.
And I miss it now, laying in
a tangle of white sheets
just like I missed it
while sleeping in the desert's heat.
In the dream,
I caught my grandfather
scribbling out a letter
that read
I love you baby and
when this is better
Burma ain't gonna miss me
even a fraction
of what I missed you sweets.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.