The receptionist called her son. She picked up her book–Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch–and settled in to read. This was a week with a house full of guests, and this was a book she’d been longing to read. The hour of wait time while her son saw the therapist seemed heaven-sent.
Sun poured through the windows on both sides of the waiting room, and she moved to another chair, against the wall facing the reception desk. There was only one other wait-er, and he was facing the windows.
But when she moved, he turned to face her and said, Yes. The sun.
It was, she knew, choice time. She could smile, tightly and politely, open up her book and end the conversation. Or she could swing the door open a little wider and let him talk.
She said, I can’t complain about the sun after all the rain we’ve had.
His face relaxed and he began to tell her about his garden. She studied him, and Humpty Dumpty came to mind. Not because he was fat–he was tall and rangy, long white arms emerging from the gray sleeves of a t-shirt emblazoned with a local high school’s emblem, long white knobby-kneed legs emerging from gray knit shorts. But his head, face and scalp, was absolutely hairless, oval and shiny.
He shinnied as far as he could to the side of his chair, put his elbows on his legs and clasped his hands. He leaned toward her, and spilled a torrent of information about his corn and zucchini. He told her about making his own bruschetta with every damned thing from his own garden, which was something, he’d tell you, his kids loved but couldn’t be bothered to do themselves. His wife–
Here he stopped to explain that she was in seeing the therapist. They’d just come, he said, from the emergency room. Couple days ago, she was sewing and she poked herself a good one. Didn’t tell him though. And then this morning the thumb was as big as his chin, and tight and hot.
So the emergency room doc took one look and he lanced it wide open, and you would not believe the stuff—
She moved sharply here, and he veered. The wife, he said, was sensitive, and after all that, she couldn’t stop crying, and so he’d brought her here, and they was going to get her calmed down.
And where, he asked, do you buy your meat?
Well, she said, startled, we watch the sales and go to several different places.
Well, he replied, don’t be going to Kroger. That meat ain’t no good. Now Campbells, that’s the place to go, or even Mattingly’s–you can get a rib eye at Mattingly’s some weeks for 4.89.
The trick to it, he said, is to marinate. And the marinade has to have something sweet, something sour, something oily. His kids–they love it when he grills.
This other day, he tried something different, he said, and he sluiced his eyes at her, wondering maybe how she’d take this bit. He had a friend ’bout twenty miles north whose truck had a problem, and he himself was a good hand with fixing an engine, so his friend asked him to come take a look.
Well, this friend makes his own shine, Humpty confided, and the problem with the truck seemed to be that someone had maybe drove it into a ditch, and maybe that someone’d been drinking his own shine and didn’t want anyone to know he’d been driving under the influence.
He was able, he said, to get the truck running pretty good again, and his friend gave him a pretty good payment, and he sent him home with a good jar of shine. And by the way, ma’am, do you know how to tell if shine is safe to drink?
He cocked his shiny head toward her and she shook hers slightly. Looking pleased, he said, Well, here’s what you do. You take a little capful of the shine and pour it on the ground. Then you throw a lighted match on it.
If it burns blue, why you’re good to go. If it burns yellow, don’t you drink that shine–it’s poison.
His friend’s shine was good, though, and he made himself a moonshine marinade.
Trying new things, he allowed, was good, and his daughter had a website–write this down, he told her, or remember it so you can check–MissyDelishy. She got all these great recipes for marijuana. Yes! He learned about that from his daughter; she made brownies and chili and marijuana butter–
Mom? said her son. Ready to go?
She picked up her book and held her hand out to the man. He shook it, half-standing up.
As she turned to leave, he said, his voice almost pleading, I’m only 51, you know.
They walked to the car, opened the doors to stifling heat. As she ramped up the air conditioning, her son asked, Why’d he tell you how old he was?
I’m not sure, she said, thoughtfully, but I think he wanted to know there was enough time left.
Left for what? her son asked.
That I don’t know, Buddy, she answered. They headed home to their company, the unopened book resting on the back seat.
The Motor Vehicles Bureau was jam-packed. Normally, she’d just renew by mail, but the way the pays fell this month, it was better to show up in person and renew her registration. She took a number and found an empty place against the wall at the end of a bank of seats.
A boxy woman with sawed off hair and steely glasses was in the last seat, one leg pumping anxiously. She had a brown jacket in her lap; on the jacket was a badge with a garage’s logo, and the name ‘Enid’ was stamped beneath.
I never had to do THIS before, Enid told her. I always come in and took care of it, but this time, they tell me I gotta have my husband with me. Truck’s in his name. So I called him, told him to get his ass down here. Now I’m just waiting. Soon’s he comes, I get back in line and you can have my seat.
Enid paused, and then snorted. My business, she said, is towing unregistered vehicles to the police compound. Guess it wouldn’t do to be driving an unregistered truck.
Enid contemplated that for a minute, and then heaved herself out of the chair. There’s the old goat now, she said. You sit. You got you a wait.
She sat down and put her book on her lap, and the woman next to her turned and said, Can you BELIEVE this? I just come down to get my husband’s motorcycle registered. I didn’t expect to be here an hour. I just got out of work,– and she gestured, Vanna-like, to her flowered scrubs. She had a name tag that said, ‘Ana B’.
I work, Ana B. said, couple days at a rehab for old folks. It’s not bad, and I like the old folks. They remind me of my mother, before she passed. And hey, she said, a little fiercely, we all need someone when we get up there, right?
Ana B was probably pushing 60, she thought. Her husband, standing so the women could sit, came over to check on her. Gray cropped buzz cut, pale eyes behind rimless glasses, he leaned over her. Want anything, Mother? he asked. Need a drink?
No, no, Ana B told him, shooing him away; don’t fuss.
That man, she said to Ana B, clearly adores you.
Ana B paused, then, Yes. Yes he does, she allowed. It’s been a tough row, and so I’m glad he can get him a bike. Last time he had one was before the babies, so that was almost forty years now.
They had five girls, and they were all doing okay. But the baby–he was a boy, and he was right around 21, and he was–Ana B turned to her, and her eyes were bottomless–that boy is rotten. I’m not kidding. He is ROTTEN, she said, and she shimmered with sorrow.
They lived in the city, Ana added, and she was a city girl, but their place burned down and the insurance only paid them enough to rent an apartment down by the train terminal, and they would wake up in the night to gunfire. Pimps and hookers, drug deals on the corner, she said, and every day it seemed, one of the kids would be there: Can I borrow twenty bucks? And they were soft touches, both of them; they’d dole it out.
We got sick of it, said Ana B, and we looked around and bought us 85 acres out in the country. No neighbors, no gun shots, no drugs. And when the kids call to ask for money, she says sure. Come out here and get it.
And they say, MOM. It would cost me thirty dollars to drive there. And Ana B says, Oh, honey. Better not, then.
That’s a big change, she said, city to country. Do you like it?
Ana B was thoughtful again, patting her long hair–wavy lengths of gray, brown, blonde and white, behind her back. I cried every night for two months, she said. And then I thought I’d try a garden. You have a garden? That garden saved me. I love my garden.
92? shouted a clerk, and she held up her ticket, got up, and wished Ana B the best. The husband, seeing her rise, inched over to sit next to his wife. He grabbed Ana B’s hand.
Think of us, Ana B said, whizzing down those country roads on this man’s new toy.
After dinner, dishes done, guests snug in the family room watching The Grand Budapest Hotel on DVD, she grabbed her IPod, pulled on her sneakers, and went out for a walk. But she pulled the ear buds out before the first song played, needing the quiet, needing to let the voices of strangers play out in her mind.
Her husband sometimes joked that she should have ‘Sap’ tattooed on her forehead.
People, he’d say, will tell you any damned thing.
She thought about that, about the tales told to strangers in a waiting room. Crazy stories, sad stories, stories that made her want to laugh, ask questions, give advice–although that was not what the tellers wanted or needed.
She thought about the rotten son, about MissyDelishy’s website.
And then she put her earbuds back in and headed out for a vigorous walk.