Hospitals aren’t just for the dead or dying, sometimes they’re for communion. The blonde has both hands on her hips, glossy red lips over sharp white teeth, the doctor sandwiched between her and the skinny brunette, tugging at his beard, mouth opening and closing, waiting to jump in and stop the abuse.
“How about you use those tears you pull out so well,” the blonde says. The brunette toes the floor, starting to sweat. “How about you tell him you’re really, really sorry, you were just confused and desperate? You’ll be able to reel him back in, I’m sure.”
The doctor puts his hand on the blonde’s arm. The brunette takes a step back.
“I mean, you are so good at your little victim and martyr act,” the blonde spits.
“Okay, you know what? That’s enough,” the doctor says, taking control. The brunette huffs away.
I push the mop and don’t say a word. They’re all married, this soap opera that walks the halls, cell phones stuck to their ears, perfume drifting over my bucket of grey water. We started at the same place, grew up here, went to school here. I’m invisible to them now. I forget who put her lips where. There’s a sister, one of them, and his hands have always been Teflon—every ten feet there’s a bottle of Purell, bolted to the wall. He’s clean. Always will be.
There’s always gum under the seats. I can’t even count how many pieces I’ve pulled off. It doesn’t bother me any more, really, using my bare hands to get the gum. The screwdriver or the putty knife, they’re just an inconvenience. I’m already dirty. It doesn’t matter. The waiting room is nearly empty now, it’s late at night, past dark, past the bedtime of the little boy, maybe ten years old, listening to his father mutter lies.
“Your mom and I will always love you,” the father says, kneeling in front of the kid, scratching at his wet beard. A puddle is forming under his boots, the snow outside laying down a thick blanket of silence.
“I know, Dad,” the kid says.
This guy, Duane. He’s always in here with bumps and bruises up and down his arms, his wife with more of the same. The boy though, he’s always clean. And thank God for that. Ten years I’ve been stopping off, getting my cancer sticks, sometimes a copy of Playboy or a burrito for the ride home. Duane’s never said as much as “Boo.”
“You don’t leave because it’s easy,” the father says, swallowing while he takes a shaky breath. Across the room I kneel in the same pose as the father—my hands sticky and smelling like strawberry and bleach. My boy doesn’t talk to me any more. It doesn’t matter that I was right. She’ll never tell him that, because it’s all she has left, all she can hold onto to keep him in her corner. Maybe I should have tried harder. For what, I’m not sure.
“You leave,” the father continues, “because you have to.”
The boy nods his head, but he doesn’t understand.
I light a cigarette and inhale the smoke as deep as it can go. I picture it coating my lungs in a thin layer of tar. The parking lot is covered in white, hardly anything moving, and I wonder if she’ll show up tonight, drunk and angry, pointing at me like the blonde at her brother. Her boyfriend. The mistress. Her best friend. Whoever they are to each other, at least they care enough to get worked up about it. There’s still something there worth fighting about.
I’d say the odds are fifty-fifty and that’s about where I stand on it as well. It’d be nice to see her, Amber. It’d be nice to take her home. None of that will happen.
Two men in slick black hair and long wool coats ease out of the emergency room doors—Sonny and Rick. I’ve seen them over at the Twisted Spoke, bottle of bourbon nestled between them, animated talks with their eyes darting to the bartender, Rita, her cleavage about the only thing worth looking at in that rat’s nest.
They wander towards the parking lot, the sidewalk dotted with salt, slicks of ice here and there—never looking my way. The gray jumpsuit, I might as well be concrete.
“I can’t even remember, Sonny,” the big guy says.
“And the next thing you wake up and something’s broken,” the little guy says, stuffing his hands deeper into his coat pockets. “Something’s broken and lying on the ground, and then what,” he asks.
You pick it up, I mutter, and inhale. You fix it if you can, whatever’s broken. Because once somebody else picks the pieces up, once somebody else fixes those jagged edges, once they smooth things over—it’s no longer yours.
I flick the butt into the bank of dirty snow and it disappears with a hot, red hiss. When the blonde balances her way out the door on her spiky heels, I look behind her—no one—and follow.
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