Waiting Rooms

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
Ghost story with local color

Submitted: May 25, 2016

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Submitted: May 25, 2016

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Waiting Rooms

 

“What’s important now is how you spend the time left to you.” And the world shifts a bit, but she supposes only she can feel it. The doctor watches her closely.

He speaks slowly, trying to engage her eyes to see if she understands. But her mind has gone numb. Three to six months. She tries to grasp at the “but no one knows for certain” part, but it seems too slender a thing to cling to. “Tell the people in your life you love them. Forgive anyone that you need to forgive,” he is saying. But whom should she forgive? Her life has been a carefully kept ledger, balanced and closed each night. Only one person has ever disturbed these orderly summations, and it is no longer possible to reconcile that account.

In a daze, she collects her hat and purse. The doctor holds the door of the examination room for her. As she passes through, the doctor catches the eye of the attending nurse, shakes his head minutely. She nods, mutely.

The waiting room is full. A few people raise their heads as she passes. Incurious, their eyes drop back to the months-old magazines, from which mailing labels have been removed to ensure that the donors remain anonymous.

She takes her scrip to the clinic pharmacy, where she waits for the oxycodone the doctor has prescribed to be counted and bottled. In a small private booth, she listens while a pharmacist explains the dangers of opioid use, but loses the thread and barely suppresses a small, hysterical laugh when he stresses the dangers of lifetime addiction. The pharmacist pauses a moment, watching her, then resumes his scripted speech.

It is a lovely, bright autumn day outside the clinic. But she barely notices. She sets off up the slight hill toward her apartment building, three blocks distant. The doctor’s words run through her head, over and over, stripped of the attempts to comfort, only the jagged facts remaining. Advanced uterine cancer. Three to six months. Three months gets her to Christmas, maybe the New Year. Six months to nearly, but not quite, spring.

When she reaches her apartment, she rests her back against the door for a moment before she takes off her hat and coat. Then she sits down at the kitchen table and looks out the window. She tires more easily now than she used to, but she had put that down simply to growing older. Now there is a more ominous explanation. After a minute, she gets up again. She takes the bottle of pills from her purse, unscrews the top, and shakes one of the oblong white capsules onto her palm. She goes to the cupboard, reaches beyond folded and rubber-banded packages of ready-made dinners for two from which a single serving has been measured out, to the neat row of glassware and plates, four settings of each. Visitors are rare, so place settings are used each in its turn to even the wear. She takes down a spotless tumbler. She pours water from the pitcher in the refrigerator. Then she pauses, looking quizzically at the pill. It was the gnawing pain, faint at first but steadily more insistent, that had driven her to see the doctor. Most things get better on their own, she believes. Ignore them and they’ll go away. But this hadn’t. Making up her mind, she tilts her head back, pops the pill into her mouth. She drinks the glass of water in one long draught.

She knows the pill doesn’t have an immediate effect, but she feels a little better anyway. She puts the pitcher back in the refrigerator, rinses out the tumbler and sets it neatly next to the faucet. Then she goes into her bedroom.

On the dresser in front of the mirror is a small wooden box, lacquered black with a vaguely Chinese floral pattern on the top. She has had it since she was a child. It has been years since she’s opened it; she can’t remember how many, exactly. In it are most of the important objects in her life. Nothing of a financial or legal nature- those things are kept elsewhere. In the box are things that are close to her heart, important to memory. She opens the box, takes out a letter. It is old. The paper is yellowing. She lifts the letter out of its envelope, and carefully, very carefully, unfolds it along creases that have become mostly tears. She looks at it, but it is hard to say whether she is actually reading, for she knows the words by heart. Her lips move silently: “Nights are bright with muzzle flash and starshells. At dawn, the rising sun is dim from drifting smoke…days are difficult to tell from night and from each other. But I am counting the days until we can be together again. Your ever faithful Robert.” Her eyes are distant. After a bit, she refolds it, tucks it into the envelope. She reads the address, one that is not very far from where she is standing now. Her finger traces the faded return address, one that is very far away indeed. Then she walks back to the kitchen and puts the envelope in her purse. She puts on her hat and coat, picks up the purse. She takes a last look around the apartment. Satisfied, she goes out again, carefully locking the door behind her.

She has lived her entire life in this neighborhood.

Where her clinic now stands, a storefront housing a doctor’s private practice once stood. Her mother brought her there for treatment of childish ailments: a case of measles and, once, a broken ankle that had been immobilized in hard white plaster for endless summer weeks. When she became an adolescent, self-consciousness bordering on panic meant she never returned to see the man that had cared for her since she was a baby. Her changing body had alarmed her at first, then, in stolen moments in front of the full-length mirror in her shared bedroom, been viewed with a sort of shy pride. Then, for many years, its rhythms were just something that happened to her once a month, to be borne with resignation or impatience. But now her body had turned traitor.

Late stage uterine cancer. The unwelcome thoughts circle endlessly. Childlessness is a risk factor for uterine cancer- but surely she had she only imagined the censure in the doctor’s voice?

There had been just the one time, her only chance for children. She remembers it now, how amazed she had been at her own daring, remembers trying to help the boy: the naïve bodies, the awkward twining of limbs, the pressing weight. Then the sharp pain and opening, the involuntary gasp that had frozen them both for a moment. A moment’s regret mingled with satisfaction, childhood fled and adulthood beckoning uncertainly. Then, clinging fiercely to his body when passion was spent, trying to hold with her two arms what she later understood was a thing that only two hearts, together, could hold with any surety.

And then it was over, almost before it had begun. Clothing that had been fumbled off hastily fumbled on again, their eyes averted. And how terrified she had been that she had caught, what would her parents have said, then counting the days until her period was due, surely today it would start, but it hadn’t , then the familiar pain and flow and it had never before or since been as welcome. 

But over the years that giddy relief had turned to a soft wistfulness that had finally, on some unremarked day, died. She thought about them sometimes, the children that the passing months promised and then took back one by one. Would they have been good people, kind people? What might they have looked like? Unconsciously, her hand tightens on her purse and the letter it contains.

Menopause had been easy and a relief to be rid of the monthly unpleasantness but there had been a lingering regret as well. Men had no longer looked at her in that way anymore, and more years passed and no one looked at all and at last she felt she had become completely invisible. She had grown light, almost bodiless for a time. And now, today, all the earthbound heaviness returned.

She shakes her head, tells herself firmly to think about something else. Leaving the apartment building, she waits at the intersection and crosses with the light. Another block, and she is walking past the bank where she has worked for years as a bookkeeper. Though her job has changed very little, everything around it has changed. The people she has to be deferential to come and go; they move up or on, others take their place. After a year, she finds it hard to remember their names or faces.

Across the street is the deli where she buys her lunch every day. She eats it on a bench in a park a couple of blocks away, in every season except winter. In summer the park is a popular place; when all the benches are occupied, but only then, strangers will share, sitting as far apart as possible. Conversations are sometimes struck up, but she rarely goes beyond remarks about the quality of the day’s weather and the possibility of rain.

She is recognized by a few of the people she passes on the sidewalk. But the woman in the cloth coat, sensible shoes, and shapeless hat is lost in her own thoughts. Cancer. Inoperable. All that’s left is the waiting. Three to six months. She could figure out the number of minutes left to her if she wanted. She doesn’t want to. Tell the people in your life you love them. There aren’t many. She has never married. Her parents and siblings are gone. Her niece would miss her, but it would not be devastating. Her niece is affectionate but distracted, busy with her own life and family.

She turns right, away from the small commercial district onto a winding, leafy residential street. She looks about her, remembering. Though her life is narrow in compass, it is rich in memory as only long continuance in one place can make it. Details that exist only in memory overlay the scenes in front of her eyes. Here is a house where she once attended a large birthday party; she remembers a boy breaking his arm in a fall from a backyard tree, how all the partygoers had congregated afterward in little groups, talking in low tones, unconsciously rubbing their own arms in sympathy. How old had she been then? The family in the house now has lived there for ten years, but to her the house is still ‘the Winton place’.  She is sure the new family is unaware of the ghosts living alongside them.

She walks down a hill where several early twentieth century houses were torn down to make way for newer, more expensive homes. On the corner, the house she and her sister lived in as children is gone. It always makes her a little sad to see the place where she had been born, grew to young womanhood, and finally abandoned for a never-fulfilled promise of wider horizons.

How was a niece different from a daughter, she wonders idly. Favorite aunts are eventually thrown over for other interests as the world expands to take them- the nieces- in. She has known plenty of contentious mother-daughter pairs, but the bond is always a fierce one, love or hate or both. What would it have been like to watch her own daughter grow up? To have someone of her own to love now? There would be a deeper sorrow, perhaps, but at least one person to care that she had lived and now was dying.

Not aware she is doing it, she puts out her hand to touch the purse with its letter again. What if he were here with her now? He was first a presence in her life, then an absence, but never far from her thoughts. What would he be like now? Everything about herself has changed: her hair sometimes grown long, at other times cut short; the glasses that came and stayed; body now slumping and a bit arthritic: all the slow insults of years, to which the lover’s eye is blind. In her mind he stayed the same man/boy that had pulled down the window of the departing trolley, stuck his head out and waved to her the last time she saw him.

Later, there had been a picture, one sent to her and one to his parents. She saw it on their piano the day the letter from the Army arrived and they telephoned and she had known immediately that something was terribly wrong. Broad smile, hat at a jaunty angle. Where was that picture now? Put away somewhere: she was sure she hadn’t thrown it out. It had accompanied her to her first apartment, where it occupied an honored place in the living room until, as time passed, visitors began to look at each other and raise their eyebrows at a too long indulged grief. At some point, probably when moving between apartments, it had been relegated to a box in her niece’s basement, but she can’t remember when exactly.

She looks about her. Somehow several more blocks have passed. Grantham Avenue becomes Northrup Street, branches meet overhead in a solid canopy, home security firms advertise discreetly on metal signs. She is in the University Grove, where many of the local university faculty live. Most of the houses date to the mid twentieth century, faux half-timbered dwellings with small, diamond-paned windows, brick and slate and ivy, dark and rather secret.

The afternoon quiet is intense, solemn. No children play. Occupants are occasionally revealed by the twitch of a curtain in a window. Once in a while a voice is heard, distantly, but never a second voice, the other half of a conversation that must be imagined. A flash of sunlight catches her eye, but it is only a slowly spinning strip of silvery paper, intended to keep birds from flying into a window. There are no birds.

Northrup ends; she turns left on Folwell. A block down, tucked between two houses, is a an old sidewalk shaded by trees, apparently leading nowhere. It is unknown to most of the neighborhood, and those who do discover it are uncertain about using it. Is it private property, or isn’t it? She follows it. On either side are intimate views into backyards. Then, abruptly, it dives over the lip of a steep incline, down many long stairs and into the past.

The stairs are badly maintained. Winter’s damage is no longer repaired by the city, and there are many steps. She watches her footing carefully. Brilliant mica flecks stand out in the weathered surface. Once this stairway had been well-used, leading to the platform where, when she was young, she had boarded the trolley with the other passengers to go to the city to work, shop, or play. The trolleys are long gone, victims of a spasm of modernization in the fifties.

The handrail is smooth, still brown-shiny from the touch of thousands of hands over the decades. As a girl, she saw it only as something to slide down when no one was looking. Now, she grips it tightly. Going down the steps reawakens the pain; she places a hand over her abdomen. Lulled by the friendly narcotics the pain is no longer knifelike, but still a reminder that a sort of malign life is stirring within. She pauses a moment to master the pain, then pushes it aside.

At the bottom is the trolley stop. There is no longer a shelter over it; only the holes in the weathered concrete show where the supporting posts had stood. She crosses from the stairs to the platform, stepping carefully over the dirt path that once was the roadbed for the trolley. The platform is nearly covered in drifts of leaves: this year’s leaves bright as medallions, skeletal leaves from last year, leaves from years before that unrecognizable, gone to dirt and riven with roots. She picks up a few fallen maple seeds, drops them idly and watches them spin themselves into the mould to await the spring. She scuffs at them with the toe of her shoe.

The stairs emerge from an opening in a concrete retaining wall. On the wall there is infrequent graffiti, and less frequent attempts to paint over it. To her left, the roadbed tends up a slight rise toward the university campus. To her right, it is arrow straight toward downtown. Everywhere trees meet overhead. Yellow leaves fall through a tunnel of late afternoon light. As she stands, listening, the small lives that were disturbed by her coming resume. She hears the hollow knock of a woodpecker tentatively probing a dead tree. Squirrels pause, then cross the old roadbed in bounds, tails sinuous curves as they run.

She steps off the platform, and walks slowly in the direction of downtown. Birds break from trees in front of her, darting low to new covert, only to be flushed again as she comes abreast of them. Railroad ties still protrude from earth in some places, half-exposed like the eroded bones of ancient mammoths. Bits of ironmongery, brown as earth, purpose no longer discernible, are attached to some of them.

She stops in the roadbed, looks down. On the bare ground is a deer mouse, its satin ears and neat paws delicate in death. Too recently dead for scavengers to have found it, it seems ready to leap to its feet and scurry off. She nudges it gently with a toe. It remains still.

She picks up a scarlet leaf, twirls it absently in her fingers, then returns to the platform. This is where she bid Robert good-bye on another autumn afternoon, fifty years ago. Robert in his crisp uniform, hat at that rakish angle, smiling, excited. She dismayed, breathless, disconnected- so much left to say and no time to say it. A last, rather dangerous, kiss, with her skipping along the platform as he leaned down from the rear steps of the trolley. Then Robert pulling down the trolley’s window, leaning out, waving, both of them waving, until the car is out of sight. The last time she saw him.

She is suddenly furious. My life should have begun that day, not ended, she thinks. Then, just as quickly, cold despair descends, the hurt a reopened wound. Overcome with grief and loneliness, she sinks to her knees on the platform. She puts her face in her hands and cries aloud, for all the things that might have been and will never be, for a lost love and the barren years between. Then she is still.

After a bit, she raises her head, takes a trembling breath. There is a smell of burning leaves. But leaf burning has been banned for thirty years, she thinks. Then, from the direction of the campus, where a collapsed tunnel once carried the trolley beneath Cleveland Avenue, comes a distant, echoing rattle. Overhead is a crackling and a smell of ozone. A once-familiar feeling of anticipation seizes her. With a skirl of flange on rail, in an eddy of light in which there is a glitter of plate glass and varnished wood, dreamlike but distinct, an apparition sweeps up to the platform.

She gets unsteadily to her feet. On the platform around her there is now a dim throng. A woman in a Gibson girl hairdo, shirtwaist blouse and long pleated skirt alights from the car and walks into the arms of a man in a straw boater. She marvels that she can see the trees behind them through their bodies. A man in a long winter coat brushes snow from his silk hat, gets up from the shelter’s bench and climbs onto the trolley. Another man in a double-breasted suit with wide lapels folds his newspaper, arises from the wooden trolley seat and steps carefully down, while a man in conservative grey flannel passes wraith-like through him on his way into the car. A small boy in knickerbockers pushes a bundle onto the trolley’s rear platform before clambering up himself. A woman in a tailored suit with padded shoulders tugs at the leash of a small white and black terrier as she crosses the tracks and starts up the long flight of stairs toward Folwell Street.

She turns, bewildered, raises her hands to her mouth. All around her she sees farewell embraces, homecoming embraces, beloved faces behind glass. The muted hum of a hundred conversations fills the dreaming air. And the soldiers, always the soldiers, leaning from windows, or hunched disconsolate in seats. Some will return; many will not.

In a shower of phantom sparks and a small whirlwind of yellow leaves, the apparition pulls away into the overarching tunnel of branches, where the westering sun is just slipping behind the downtown skyscrapers in a last burst of light.

 

****

 The middle-aged man in the nondescript gray suit, white shirt and carelessly-knotted tie sits down at the desk across from his colleague. He takes out a wrinkled handkerchief and wipes his balding forehead. The colleague looks up from the report he is writing.

“What have you got?”

“You saw the dispatcher’s report. Elderly woman. Recent cancer diagnosis. Lately she’s taken to wandering . Typical missing persons report. The niece is frantic.”

“Aren’t they all? You think this is an Alzheimer’s thing?”

“The niece doesn’t think so. The woman was still holding down a job at a bank. No issues at work, as far as she knows.”

“Suicide, then? Despondent over the cancer diagnosis?”

“Possible, I suppose. It’s been 48 hours since she disappeared.”

“Yah,” the man sounds disgusted. “Why didn’t she call sooner? You tell her how critical the first 24 are in cases like this, when you talked to her?”

“No. She’s feeling guilty enough already. She says she’s the only relative the woman has, and she doesn’t check in with her every day.. I knocked on a few doors in the neighborhood after I talked to her. I figured somebody must have seen the old lady. When I described her, a lot of people knew who I was talking about. But nobody really knew much of anything about her. Sounds like it was lucky she had the niece.”

“Niece lives in the neighborhood?”

“No. Not far away, though.”

“And the aunt lives in an apartment? How long?”

“Forever. Well, for as long as the niece can remember, anyway. Same one near the bank where she works. Sounds like she was the original never miss a day type.”

“She say anything else?”

“She asked her aunt about the wandering, and the aunt told her about the old trolley stop. Apparently it was something she had rediscovered recently. She’s lived in the same neighborhood her whole life and used to take the trolley.”

“Where you found the purse.”

“Uh-huh. Strange place. I don’t think a lot of people know about it anymore. There’s a set of steps, and a platform that must have been where the trolley stopped. Must be a hundred steps down to it. That’s where the purse was, lying on the platform. Are we sure it’s hers?”

 “Yep. Had her ID in it. Doesn’t seem to be anything missing.”

“How do you know? What’s in it?”

“Not much. Couple of insurance cards. Library card. Surprisingly little, really. No driver’s license.”

“So was she robbed, then?”

“Don’t think so. Her wallet still had money in it.”

“Not much to go on.”

“Oh, and there was this.” The detective pushes a yellowed envelope across the desk.

“What is it?”

“An old letter. From a boyfriend, apparently.”

“Do we know anything about him?”

“I called the niece and mentioned it. She remembers a picture her aunt used to have in her apartment. She’s pretty sure it was signed ‘from Robert’, same as the guy that sent the letter.”

“Any reason to think he’s involved in this?”

“No. I mean, this is an old letter. The niece thinks he’s dead, if it’s the same guy as in the picture. Her aunt didn’t like to talk about it, but she did say once that he had died a long time ago. Picture is of a serviceman, from what she remembers.”

 “Was she ever married?”

“Niece says not. It sounded like the old lady never got over this guy. Post mark is fifty years old. There’s no current record anywhere of him. He’s probably buried in Italy somewhere.”

The second detective rubs his chin. “So what’s it doing in her purse? What’s the connection with the disappearance?”

“I don’t think there is one. Just a loose end. But there was one other thing. There was a cell phone.”

“Ah, a phone. Better. Recent calls?”

“Only to the niece. The niece gave it to her so she could keep track of her easier. She doesn’t seem to have called anyone else. Not even work. However-“

“However what?”

“There were pictures on the cell phone.” The detective produces the cell phone. “Apparently she figured out how to take pictures by herself. The niece didn’t even know the phone had a camera.” He turns the phone on, clicks on the photo album. The only pictures on the phone are of the old trolley stop. “I did some research: the last car ran through there in 1954. Whoever bought up the pieces of the company when it went bankrupt came through and took all the stuff that was worth anything. Rails, spikes, everything metal. Then the vultures descend and start pulling up railroad ties for their gardens.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. Just a few ties left sticking out of the ground near the stop. Like bones.”

“The pictures are kinda strange, though. Here, take a look.”

There are maybe eight pictures. They click through slowly.

“What am I looking for? I was there. More leaves on the trees is all. Otherwise it’s the same.”

“Here. This is the last one taken. Look at it closely and tell me what you see.”

The second detective leans closer.

“See the straight, shiny lines? Pretty faint. Kinda hard to see against the glare of the sunset.”

Faintly but unmistakably, rails catch the last light of an autumn evening along a tunnel of light.

The detective looks, frowns.

“They look like rails to you?”

“I see what you’re talking about. But there aren’t any rails down there.”

“Sure?”

“Positive. Like you said, they’re long gone. Probably something wrong with the camera.”

Both men sit back in their chairs. They look at each other.

The balding detective picks up the cell phone, clicks through the pictures one more time, frowning, then sets it down on the desk and pushes it into the small pile of the woman’s belongings.

“So what do we tell the niece?”

“Nothing we can tell her at this point. But I don’t think this is going to have a happy ending.” He produces a manila envelope from his desk and puts the articles into it, one by one. He twists the closure shut and places the envelope in his out basket.

“I just don’t get it. What the hell was she doing at an abandoned trolley stop?”

“Some trips take a long time to complete, maybe.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. Just thinking out loud.” He tips his chair back, looks at the ceiling. “You know, it’s a funny thing about people. They see somebody every day, doing the same things every day, until she's pretty much just part of the scenery. Then one day something sets her off and she disappears, and they’re thinking wow, the old lady must have had a lot going on that we didn’t know about. Turns out they didn’t know her as well as they thought they did.” He looks at the other man and shrugs. “And now it’s too late.  We may never know what really happened.”

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Norman Donald Bloom. All rights reserved.

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