You’d think from cop shows and medical-type dramas that the E of ER implies quick, undivided, indiscriminate emergency attention, like ASAP, indefatigable nurses and superhuman degrees of sympathy from everyone within a broken arm’s length distance, a ‘treat the wound first, sweat the cost later’ attitude to caretaking and ice cream for everybody. But this was not the case at Beth Shalom, where the man had arrived a few hours back. He was now sitting in the second emergency room waiting room, which came after the first emergency room waiting room and which he worried might lead to a third. He was sitting there, waiting for something to happen to somebody, for anyone at all to catch a break already, and in this m.t. he was trying his best to divert himself, to concentrate on the television monitor to his left. It was the episode of the Simpsons where Bart gets famous, where he becomes the “I Didn’t Do It” kid. The other bodies in ERWR2 were quiet but not exactly copasetic. Ten minutes ago the biggish and racially ambiguous receptionist woman behind the bulletproof glass had been watching Young and the Restless, an unbearably sexy soap and, for that reason, one protested by several ERWR2 comrades. She ignored them, but they banged on that glass, and they cursed, and when they cursed they sprayed and spittled who knows what and where, and it was this epidemiological threat, wiped off the glass post-haste, that got them their channel change. —Two clicks up, that’s it, she conceded. It was General Hospital; the coincidence was too much for everybody even her. They got a click more then, and they got Frasier, and they all tried, really tried hard to find something in it to like. When that ended, the Simpsons came on, and now, any second now, Bart would cut his rap to the tune of “U Can’t Touch This,” and maybe something, anything really, might approach some state of dandy.
The spasms had subsided, sorta. It might have been an embarrassment thing. Beth Shalom wasn’t a place for pickup—granted. But convulsions, major sweats, paleness ad literally nauseam aren’t the best look anywhere, especially when the lockjaw has already set in and the man’s mouth can’t move and he can’t even defend himself before the receptionist or the rent-a-copper by the entrance—can’t even cross his heart and hope to die that it’s not from no junk. It was from worse, from something much stupider. It was from that stupid knife, and it had gone untreated, and now tetanus made a puppet of him. Physical pain but cosmic too, as if punishment, the mental aggravation one suffers after being conned and pawned and exampled-out-of—though that was something else entirely. He tried his best to rein himself in, keep his movements minimal, get that mind good and distracted. Otherwise he’d do The Dance again—he called it The Dance, it was a terrible dance—right there in ERWR2, his arms flailing and head jerking and twitching and everything sweating everywhere, just like what had happened in ERWR1. It never occurred to him, or maybe he was too sick to ask, whether The Dance got him this far, to the second waiting room, or whether his relocation meant a move forward or backward in the emergency queue. He would have asked but it hurt to talk. And so he sat here, in obedience to the Way Things Work, for what had to be the third or fourth hour now, time in the park of three or four past midnight, and he thought about what a bummer it was not to know who or what was moving him around and making him dance if not he himself.
The waiting room seats were more like airport benches. Long bent metal tried hard to be ergonomic, with uniform swiss cheese holes on the back supports, and frank bars demarcating one’s sitting area—so something like six seats to a bench. There were no books or magazines to read, so he counted the holes on the bench in front of him. The man was not a math guy. Had he been, and thank the Christ he wasn’t, he would have determined the pattern and multipied his way out of that distraction in no time. But he wasn’t a math guy. He counted each hole individually, seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight, and he always lost it around there, always lost his place. When he wasn’t counting he wondered about the spasms. He anticipated them, and when the numbers grew higher and duller he wished they would just come again, wished he could just get them out of the way. Then he’d get back to not wondering, not anticipating, which was better than their opposites. The spasms weren’t so bad a shake, so to speak. They were definite, a bona fide excuse. Under their threat, the man abdicated control over his body and, in its own devious way, this meant he had no responsibility for his actions. His right arm could pop that Latin American woman’s baby right out her arms, or jump between the old men sharing an oxygen tank and or throw elbows at anybody or anything upwards infinity, maybe like twenty elbows, before they would suspect intentionality. But otherwise the spasms were yes, that that, a bummer.
There was a little guy, quite maybe one of those actual-midget midgets, sleeping in the seat to the man’s left. The midget might have been a dwarf, who ever remembers the distinction, which is to say the man was happy this midget and/or dwarf was asleep, otherwise he might break midget/dwarf rule number one and just ask the guy. Apparently there was some kind of curse involved, to asking. The midget’s black head and Jheris had made their way under the demarcating bar, and had made (he just now noticed) some oily impression into the man’s black pant leg. The whole of his body was stretched out the entire width of his seat, face towards the back of the bench, with only his small velcro sneakers dangling over, the feet resting upon a bag of his own belongings. The midget and the man were the only two on the bench. Everyone else had moved, on account of the midget’s smell, which was heinous—as if he had cannonballed into a tub of high fructose corn syrup then just baked in it, a really sticky, really nauseatingly sweet smell, like the blue dumpster outside a lesser restaurant, or the fountain soda hookups at the bowling alley snack bar. But he wasn’t sick, he could tell. He was just hanging out, it seemed, he was probably just waiting for somebody.
He would have gotten up, the man, walked around, time-killed before his name was called, but sitting options weren’t much better elsewhere, and sitting-waiting was better then not-sitting-waiting. The real sorry looking ones sat close to the reception window, in direct view to the receptionist, just so they wouldn’t be forgotten. A tall black man with no teeth and sweatpants and black hightops and a Northface jacket and no shirt on underneath sat among them, talking to himself in what seemed like rhymes. —If you’re sick, it’s Rick. If you’re Rick, you’re sick. If you’re sad, you’re mad, if you’re mad, he said and so on. The man with the spasms gave up on the television and watched the rhyming black man in the Northface. He took a while to get from one clause to another, shuffling through his mental rolodex of possible rhymes then speaking upon discovery, shouting his next rhyme, never screening it for sense, never revising. His happiness was pulse-like, in direct proportion to his ability to come up with another homophone. When he landed one, a slight smile crept into his face, and it grew louder and teethier with each successive one. When he hit a wall, the color of his face sputtered out like helium from a latex balloon.
The woman with the baby sat in the corner whispering to the baby, trying to get it to stop screaming already. The man who was with her, some kind of husband-looking type, sat there fumbling, trying to decide where he should put his hands. Underneath a poster that proposed there to be no I in TEAM sat a man whose face was covered equal parts in dirt and follicle, asleep, with the crotch of his pants given out—from overwear probably, not some brilliant idea for self-cooling. A Muslim woman sitting with her father whose eyes kept rolling back into his head, she kept raising her scarf above her eyes, as if embarrassed, as if her father’s eyes were hers. On the television, Homer was at the breakfast table reading the newspaper. He turned to the morning horoscope section, to his own horoscope, and the camera cut close:—Today will be a day like every other day.
A nurse came out an unmarked wooden door with no handle on the outside. She was very old and incapable of surprise and, her face stricken with a grave case of heard-it-all, seemed to believe that everyone in the waiting room was just faking it. She was their everything; she didn’t seem to care. They watched her play with her clipboard and say nothing still, click her pen up and make scribbles and dodge their eyes. And when she didn’t look at any of them, all of them glared round the room at each other, making accusations for crimes that weren’t crimes, suspecting one person, then another, then hating that one person, then another, whoever he was, whoever seemed like he knew something the others didn’t. No one knew what name the nurse would call, who she would choose—though no doubt it was her choice, and so half the room ratcheted up the yelps and aches and pains and hellish eye rolls, and the other half just sat there extra polite, believing the old nurse to know what’s what, hoping she’d reward them for their respect for the proper channels.
—Mr. Matthews, she said. She did not look up. An older man, 70 or so, had to be with a face like that, who had just walked in ten minutes prior, a grade-a hunchback who spoke some kind of Slavic with a woman who looked twice his age—it was Mr. Matthews, and he stood up. —Up, he said, and he got up, and he turned to his woman then round the rest of them, —that’s me. Nobody believed him. Nobody had even seen him a minute ago. He took his time getting to the door, and the rest scrutinized his waddle, checked it for swagger, scanned it for some reason, any at all, to trip the man up or drop an elbow on him or thrash him wild for failing to pay his due. This was the logic, dues and paying them, then the door closed.
It was another ten or so minutes before the black guy with the rhymes and sorry teeth and the Northface started rhyming again. The man with the spasms had lost track. Inside him was this hellacious scream, and it demanded of him all energy to keep his jaw locked into its current aperture, to keep it in. The Northface grin grew steady. Holding his pattern, he fell into a trance: If you’re THIS then you’re THAT, if you’re THAT then you’re THIS, on and on and on, a series of conditionals followed by remarks in conclusion—only they never were in conclusion, merely built up then broken down with no apparent concern for what came before or after. Then, then out of nada he dropped his unrhyme, broke the cycle, and therein: a revelation. If you’re drunk, you’re a skunk. If you’re skunk you’re a monk. If you’re monk, you’re a crunk. If you’re crunk, you’re…WHERE’S MY FUCKING NEWSPAPER WHO STOLE MY FUCKING NEWSPAPER. The man with the spasms listened closely, trying to divine. Most times the rhyming man’s revelation had something to do with some kind of missing newspaper. He thought about giving up on him. Bart talked about rainforests. His mouth didn’t match the words.
They met eyes. The man regretted this deeply. The black man smiled and held him there, tractored. If you’re white you’re right, if you’re right you fight, if you fight, you might, if you might… you might as well. The spell broke. The black man shrugged his shoulders, and loosened his gaze, and looked away from the man. The man with the spasms seemed to have disappointed him. He turned his head and fixed his rhymes elsewhere, now toward the younger Latin American kid with the mohawk and the bleeding left hand, covered in what looked like frilly cocktail napkins swiped from the bar. If you’re hurt you’re a flirt. If you’re a flirt you’re dirt. If you’re you’re dirt you’re—
The kid’s massive indifference to the black man might have been a language barrier thing, or belief in some alternate version of physics, as if a person’s non-movements might render him invisible. IF YOU’RE HURT YOU’RE A FLIRT. IF YOU’RE A FLIRT YOU’RE DIRT. The rhyming mouth, that mouth and the breath and gums spiked like a mace, it was no further than two or three inches from the kid’s face now, and his wet funk and spittle they all saw condense onto the kid’s pimply forehead, and they waited for him to flinch, and when he didn’t flinch, and when they were absolutely positive he wouldn’t flinch any time soon, they relaxed and sat back, all of them, relieved there was a martyr among them. IF YOU’RE DIRT YOU’RE HURT, IF YOU’RE DIRT YOU’RE HURT, IF YOU’RE DIRT YOU’RE HURT. Relieved and entertained now, for it became like watching one of those endurance shows on TV, the ones on bad cable with some beautiful woman or an old guy with a beard who has to hold his breath under water or so IF YOU’RE HURT YOU’RE A SKIRT in order for his team to win a chance to compete in another equally ridiculous endurance test that IF YOU’RE HURT the black man in the Northface started screaming so loudly that the midget next to the man woke up, and the midget seemed not scared but irritated, and by now some of the less delighted patients in ERWR2 began pounding on the bulletproof glass, and the receptionist watched the television, and the rent-a-cop stood there bored. IF YOU’RE SKIRT THEN YOU’RE The receptionist turned up the television. Bart in class daydreaming. WORSE Skinner at the top of the class: —Class, instead of going to the box factory today, we’ll be going to the…box factory. The baby started crying again and the midget started fidgeting and the rent-a-cop and the corn syrup smell. The kid’s face and the rabid frothing IF YOU’RE WORSE YOU’RE CURSED and now the spasms and the stomach that crunched and the man falling and the floor being colder than the man thought it’d be IF YOU’RE CURSED YOU’RE
—Stanley, said the nurse. The screaming stopped. —What did I tell you about the screaming, she said. Stanley began screaming, something about how he wasn’t supposed to scream. —That’s right, she said. —And when you want to scream, you sit down in your chair and think about your favorite color. Just like I taught you. Now. Stanley. What’s your favorite color, Stanley, she said. Stanley was either catching his breath or beginning to cry. —Stanley, tell everybody your favorite color. He let go the kid’s shirt, and he walked around the room in long curious steps, as if considering his answer and simultaneously trying to dislodge his underwear. He walked by the man, right over him, still fidgeting and still on the floor, thankful Stanley’s performance had upstaged his own, and when Stanley stepped over him he saw Stanley’s feet through his boots sockless and the sole coming off the fronts and a gnarled big toe nail. After Stanley passed the man worked his way back into his seat and put his left hand over his mouth and his head down penitent. He was out of breath and his chest beat without rhythm and he was that bad mix of sweaty and cold. Stanley made one more lap then sat to the right of the man, sitting down without warning, almost snapping down on the man’s right arm, and now was mumbling to himself. —Stanley, I didn’t hear you, she said. —What did you say your favorite color is, Stanley.
—Purple, he said.
—Very good, now
—Purple like a dolphin.
—That’s, that’s very good. Think of that dolphin, Stanley. Think about it floating around in the ocean. And very soon I’ll come get you when it’s time to come inside my room.
She waited for some sort of confirmation from Stanley, a head nod or anything, but turned away without it. When she left Stanley got up and paced again and spoke again addressing no one in particular: ––Think of that dolphin Stanley think of that dolphin Stanley think of that dolphin Stanley think of that—
The TV had not been turned down since the end of the screaming, and with no competition it became the room’s focal point. Krusty was yelling at his personal assistant, something about wanting a danish. The personal assistant said all the danishes were gone. —They’re not gone, Krusty said. —You’re gone! Stanley remained in mantra. Think of that dolphin Stanley think of that dolphin Stanley think. No word received more emphasis; Stanley changed his intonation nada. That dolphin Stanley. Think of that dolphin Stanley.
—I AM NOT A DOLPHIN, Stanley screamed. —I AM NOT A DOLPHIN STANLEY. The man and most the others, they snapped back, braced their cold armrests for the crash, and the less nauseous of them tried to pretend they never jumped back and braced, and the man regretted being too nauseous to count himself among the pretenders. Stanley went back to whispering, than shouting, then whispering again. The sick thing, the really sick and completely unhelpful thing that occurred to the man, with his mouth covered shut now and that scream bee-buzzing inside, the sick thing that occurred to him was: Maybe all of this would stop, sphinx’s riddle-like, if only the man could figure out a word to rhyme with dolphin. That was it. If you’re a dolphin, then you’re. What. It wasn’t coming. All of Stanley’s mental and physical energies conspired to prove him before the room, without a doubt, not a dolphin Stanley. He screamed more and frothed and gesticulated, and the baby in the woman’s arms did what everyone else wanted to do, it screamed back and cried and batted its arms around and WHAT ARE YOU SCREAMING ABOUT Stanley said I’M NOT DOLPHIN STANLEY he said YOU’RE A DOLPHIN
Coughing–the man was coughing. Stanley turned back to the man. He covered his mouth but couldn’t stifle it. Stanley became quiet. —You’re a dolphin Stanley, Stanley said to him. Stanley bent down and moved closer and breathed and sputtered, and there could be no wipe, no movement, for to move would be to not be invisible, and to not be invisible would be— The right of the man’s face grew sick and wet from Stanley’s condensed saliva. The coughing, his stomach now too, that upwelling of sharp jolts and empty cold. The man cut his legs into the bench’s cold metal. To the man, to the man alone and that much was clear, Stanley reiterated that he, the man, not Stanley, was a dolphin Stanley. The tightening in the abdomen, front to back, the shooting pains down the sciatic DOLPHIN STANLEY a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken what awful whiskey Stanley drank That’s the Way Uh-Huh Uh-Huh I Like It and then the man felt his neck snap back and his hands leave his mouth and he felt Stanley’s crooked nose on his one hand and Stanley’s fat lip on the other, the fat thing dripping who knows what everywhere and he felt his stomach hit its spin cycle and Stanley’s right fist hit his jaw and his left hit his left eye and the rent-a-cop screaming to stop punching Stanley you maniac stop punching Stanley and the receptionist saying he’s a sick man he’s a sick man how could you do that to a sick man like Stanley and the man felt the floor again and the green lights above and a knee not his own and there was Krusty talking, —All you gotta do is say, “I am waiting for a bus,” and a different knee now and there was Krusty saying —Then I hit you with pies for five minutes.