We’re All Animals
I’m waiting, wedged between a wheezing old man staring at the wall and a young girl swinging her feet, making just enough contact to produce a swooshing sound on the low carpet as she sweeps them back and forth. Across from me a granny lady with long, straight silver hair is holding a red-headed toddler in her lap, reading to her from a Southern Living she picked up from a stack of periodicals by the front door.
I’ve been here for about thirty minutes already, and this thirty-foot-long rectangle of a room is chock full of sad sacks and down-and-outs, about 25 of us in all. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my whole life, just waiting for something to happen.
It’s July outside, and I highly suspect the air conditioner is busted, because it feels like July in here, too. It’s also quiet in here, save for the alternating coughs and sniffles from all around and the old man’s labored breathing to my left. His wheezing beside me, while not without a certain rhythmic quality, is nearly excruciating to close bystanders like me who are already uncomfortable in a quiet room full of strangers suffering from ailments ranging from the cold to God-only-knows.
The old man’s dressed in dark blue denim overalls and a plain white T-shirt. His gray hair looks oily and it’s mussed like a patch of honeysuckle vine. I steal a peek over and he’s holding a clear plastic bag full of medicine bottles. There’s at least twenty bottles in there, and he’s clutching onto the bag like there’s gold inside.
He catches me staring at his bag. “I got sugar and high blood,” he says from a mouth with few teeth, his lips fluttering as he speaks. “Plus I gotta take some pills for my back and my heart and my stomach.”
I nod. “Sounds pretty rough,” I say back, not knowing what else to say. I sure hope that I don’t have to tote around a big bag full of pills when I get to be his age, I think to myself. Then I resolve to quit smoking as soon as I finish the pack I just bought. Maybe I’ll exercise, too.
“It’s not too bad.” he says. “It’s better than the alternative.”
“I heard that,” I reply and look down at the floor in front of me in an attempt to scuttle any further conversation.
On the other end of the room a nurse pops her head out from behind a door and everyone sits up and turns their heads like a warren of rabbits responding to a sudden noise. She calls a name . . .
I notice the granny woman’s shoes across from me. She’s wearing a pair of McGregors, the kind you might buy at a discount department store. They’re worn and dirty and the laces are caked in, like they haven’t been untied in ages. I can picture her slipping them on and off at the back door before she goes out to run errands or water her flowers, just like my own granny used to do.
The kid on her lap is following along intently as her granny reads the magazine out loud, and they both look genuinely happy amid a room full of otherwise miserable people who were made that way either by the waiting or their illnesses, or perhaps both.
On the other end of the room a nurse pops her head out from behind a door and everyone sits up and turns their heads like a warren of rabbits responding to a sudden noise. She calls a name and a middle aged man answers “hello” as he shuffles his plump frame through the doorway and into the back of the clinic.
“When do we get to go back?” the young girl beside me says to her mother, a thin bottle-blonde whose dark roots show at the part atop her head.
“I don’t know, but I wish they’d hurry the hell up.” She rummages through her large faux leather purse and retrieves a piece of nicotine gum and pops it in her mouth. “It’s that damned Indian doctor they got. They need to get an American in there that knows how to read a watch in English.”
She throws the package of gum back into her purse. “Can I help you?” she asks as she catches me glancing over in her direction.
I smile and humbly shake my head and look back down to the carpet.
A phone rings and the receptionist on the far side of the room answers. The nurse pops her head through the door and our hopes fly up again as she calls another name. There’s a collective groan from the people still left in the waiting room as an older man dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt greets the nurse with a smile and a nod and walks into the back like he’s one of God’s chosen.
My number wasn’t called, but still, that’s the second person she’s called back in the past few minutes, and I’m beginning to think the doctor’s on a roll and this won’t be a long wait after all.
“My lord, Jesus,” the mother says loudly, breaking my train of thought. She’s talking to an older black fellow sitting across from her, who responds with a slight nod and not much else. “If they don’t call us back pretty soon we’re just gonna leave, but not before I tell them what I think about it. We’ve been waiting for three damn hours.”
“I’m hungry,” the girl complains.
“Hush up, Becky,” the mother replies, turning her attention to the girl. “The last thing I need is you hollerin’ and complainin’.”
The girl hangs her head and kicks her dangling feet back and forth some more.
The granny lady across from me throws a few disapproving looks at the mother from behind the magazine. The toddler on her lap roughly flips through the pages and tears a piece from one of them and smiles at it as she holds it up and proudly shows her grandmother.
I lean forward, my head down and my elbows on the tops of my thighs and my fingers intertwined. I can feel a bead of sweat running down the small of my back as I wonder if it can get any hotter.
The quiet is disrupted suddenly as an old man on the other end of the room sounds like he’s coughing up a lung. I look over at him and he’s wearing a clear plastic tube underneath his nose that’s running across his face and behind each ear, and finally to an oxygen tank affixed to a set of black wheels and handle, sort of like one of those rolling suitcases everyone likes to use nowadays. He holds a closed hand over his mouth and struggles to catch his breath, an agonized look on his wrinkled and worn face. An old woman in a floral print dress with white walking shoes sits beside him and gently rubs his back. Her gray hair is pulled tightly into a bun and a pair of plastic rimmed glasses rest atop the bridge of her nose.
I look at my watch and it’s a quarter ‘til noon.
The door swings open again and a different nurse steps out. “Dorena Smith,” she calls out.
“It’s about damn time,” the mother beside me says as she grabs her purse and takes her daughter by the hand and gives her a hard tug off the seat.
“We’ve been waiting here forever,” she scolds the nurse as she walks by.
I sigh in relief and stretch out my legs and arm some and relax, grateful for the extra room to my right. I even pick up a copy of the Fleming Courier left behind on a table beside the seat old Dorena had been sitting in. I wonder if the old man would be insulted if I scoot over a seat or two. There’s another old lady sitting beside him, and I don’t think they’re together, so he would obviously benefit from the extra room as much as I would.
I’ll move, I think to myself, but just as I get ready to scoot over the old man loosens his grip on his medicine bag and says to me, “You wouldn’t mind scootin’ on over a bit would you? My leg’s a bit cramped.”
I give him a look like it was something I should have thought of. “No, not at all,” I reply happily and take the seat old Dorena had been sitting in and the old man takes mine.
I spread my knees apart and stretch my legs out in front of me. It feels good, but the heat inside the room is still stifling and beads of sweat are beginning to form on my forehead.
I unfold the newspaper and skim some headlines about drug arrests and the grand opening for a new hospice center when the main office door swings open and in walks a middle aged woman with a boy who must be her teenaged son. Everyone in the room looks over at them as they walk in and then we casually turn our heads back to what we were doing before.
They sign in at the front desk and take two seats across from me, beside the old lady and the little girl who has moved on to tearing out full pages of the magazine and dropping them on the floor. Every now and then her granny tells her to stop but doesn’t really do anything else in the way of enforcement.
The teenaged kid, dressed in a pair of droopy blue jeans and a T-shirt advertising some sort of invitational basketball tournament that causes me to peg him a high school basketball player, pulls out his smart phone and holds it horizontally with one hand on each end. His thumbs work so fast they seem like rubber as he texts. At least I think he’s texting. I guess he could be surfing the Internet or playing a game or whatever it is those phones do.
I wish I had one.
The teenager’s mom, a very attractive lady who obviously colors the gray out of her hair but still looks young enough that it suits her, fiddles with something inside her large purse that has some sort of designer label I don’t recognize embroidered onto the side. The items in her purse rattle and knock as she rifles through it before she finally retrieves a tube of lipstick and applies it to her bottom lip with the help of a compact mirror.
She catches me watching her and I look away like I wasn’t.
“Eugene Hurley,” the nurse calls out as she hangs out of the doorway, a file in her hand, and I’m more hopeful that my wait won’t be much longer.
The old coughing man stands up with the help of his wife (I assume) and shuffles his old legs forward. The wheels attached to his oxygen tank squeak slightly and the air smells strangely like peppermint as they walk by.
Hoping to pass the time more quickly and get my mind off the heat, I turn back to the newspaper when the door leading to the exam rooms swings open and a younger man dressed in a coal miner’s uniform walks out, the reflective strips on his legs, back and arms shining alternately as the light hits them and he asks the receptionist some questions before leaving.
We all turn our heads back to what we were doing and the room returns to quiet, only interrupted by the rustling of paper or a cough here and there.
A very long hour goes by and the old man beside me is called for and he takes his bag of medicine with him, still clutched closely to his chest as he walks back. The little girl on her granny’s lap has fallen asleep and the teenager across from me is still thumbing his phone. His mother looks to be about halfway through a romance novel with a blond muscle-bound hero type clutching a scantily clad damsel on the front cover; they look like they’re on a pirate boat or some other sort of nautical vessel made of wood.
I notice the granny lady has turned her attention to me but I’ve expended all the stories in the paper, and looking down at the carpet in an attempt to prevent undue conversation is the only tool left to me.
“You look like you’re burning up,” she says to me.
I am burning up, and it feels like an oven in here. “It’s illogically hot in this waiting room,” I say.
“It’s not too bad, really,” she replies and I think she’s insane. “When I was growing up we never had air conditioning. We just opened the windows and hoped for a breeze to come through the house.”
Here we go. Nothing like a “good old days” story. “And how you made it through July and August I’ll never know,” I say in my attempt to be polite.
“We just didn’t miss what we never had,” she replies. “Things were sure different then.”
“And better, no doubt,” I say, and actually mean it.
“Oh no, not at all,” she says with a serious tone in her voice. “There’s poor people all around nowadays, but back then it was like the only people had anything was the companies and the foremen. I grew up at the Algoma Camp where my daddy worked, and us miners’ families didn’t have anything what the company didn’t stock at the store. Things has sure got better by my way of thinking, for the most part anyway.” The girl in her lap wiggles a bit and changes position but doesn’t offer to wake up. “Except for the drugs, that is,” she continues. “We never had anything like that to contend with. Seems like everybody’s turned into a druggie. I won’t hardly leave my house for being afraid somebody’s gonna rob me blind while I’m gone. This new generation of people just ain’t got no sense. No offense to you.”
“It’ll get better,” I say confidently. “It has to. I mean, we can always change. It’s what separates us from the animals.”
“We’re all animals,” she replies with a slight, gentle smile that’s more commiserating than pleasant. “We just got big brains to make us think otherwise.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I say, and I think maybe she is.
I stand up and stretch, and just as I fold my arms back and my elbows go up the nurse pops her head through the door.
“Bruce Williams,” she calls out, holding a file in her hand.
“Thank God,” I say louder than I meant to, but by now I’m so cramped from sitting down for the past two hours that I don’t care. As I begin the walk to the door the granny lady gives me a polite nod as she strokes her sleeping granddaughter’s fiery hair.
“It was good to talk with you,” I say to her and extend my hand. “I’m Bruce.”
She smiles and shakes my hand. “Good to meet you too, Bruce.”
“Mr. Williams,” the nurse greets me and holds the door as I walk through, gladly leaving the sweltering confines of the waiting room behind me. A cool breeze of air conditioning flushes over my face and there’s a bright light at the end of hall where an exit door is open and the sun is creeping in.
The door closes loudly behind us and the nurse leads me to a scale and weighs me. I’m 227 now, but after that wait I don’t really care that I’ve gained thirty-seven pounds since coming home from Iraq.
She leads me to a small room, an exam table off to the left with a strip of white paper rolled out down the length of it. She takes my blood pressure and writes in my chart a bit and says, “OK, Dr. Ahmed will be right with you.”
So relieved am I to be out of the waiting room, I don’t really realize until the last five minutes that I’ve spent another 20 minutes waiting for the doctor to come see me.
Finally he does, and he’s a short, balding Middle Eastern man donning a white doctor’s coat and a stethoscope draped around his neck. He’s carrying my chart in his hand and greets me with a handshake as I sit atop the edge of the exam table.
“Hello, Mr. Williams,” he says, his Middle Eastern accent nearly imperceptible. “It’s good to see you again. You’re here for a work physical?”
“Yeah, I need to be cleared before I can get hired on over at AppCo,” I reply. "Just the usual."
“Very good,” he says, laying the chart on a small table off to the side. He pulls a pair of latex gloves from a box on the table and pulls them tight over his hands. “This shouldn’t take long.”
Cristan Ritchie lives near the head of a holler in Eastern Kentucky where he was raised and now spends much of his time writing stories and photographing things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, he is a former newspaperman and currently works for a regional non-profit agency in Hazard, Ky.