The Waiting Rooms by Michael Henry

pall mall butt in ashtray

 

Another Saturday Night and I Ain’t Got Nobody

In the time when we were still a family. My father is out, bar-stooled, saloon-shrugged, drinking syrupy hues of gold and butterscotch. My mother is in the bedroom, its atmosphere a fog of cigarette smoke. She works through the good book of crosswords, lying on her stomach on the creaky queen bed.

The waiting is there, too. Slothful, quiet, it curls against her hip, snoozes. The waiting has claws but rarely do they come out, at least not yet.

My mother lights another cigarette and scars ink into clean squares.

 

Transmutation

The chair quickly slows its rocking as she comes toward me. I wonder what she’s going to do, maybe a slap on my cheek or an open hand against the side of my head, but she’s past angry. She’s already thinking about tomorrow, how she’ll have to get us kids ready in time for the school bus, how she’ll have to dress for work, how she’ll lock the door to the house and walk to the freezing car to scrape ice off the windows, drive through snarled traffic as she lights up Pall Mall after Pall Mall, when all she wants to do is stay in bed and sleep.

I didn’t mean to knock the lamp over, shattering the bulb, collapsing the shade. She told me to be careful, but I’m a clumsy, squirrelly kid.

I’m sorry, I’ll clean it up.

Sometimes I wonder how people do it. How they control their bodies, how they walk gingerly across a tightrope, how they freeze and transform into statues. Akimbo spastic motion is what I am. I run to every place I want to get to. I like to climb things. I like to break windows, but not our windows. My father is long gone, and after the histrionics of his leaving, my mother craves a calm house. She likes to sleep, likes to hibernate in the heavy covers of her bed, brocade pillows spooning her body, a small window whose drapes are always closed. She likes a TV murmuring through the night, a towel thrown over its face to block out the flickering light, the soft patter of old movies.

I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up. I’ll fix it, I promise.

I want to see her hand rise up, a full backswing. I want her to strike me good. I won’t cower. I won’t turn away. Hit me hard so I can feel a small piece of what you feel.

I will take some of what she feels, will keep it as my own.

 

Never More Will I See

Outside, in the dark night, there is snow, soft and sparkling, windlessly falling.

Inside, a Willie Nelson record spins on the HiFi, the needle riding waves of groove and warp, the magical black spiral.

Where are you, mother dear?

Here, in the blue chair.

And what are you thinking?

Many things, honey, but nothing that should concern you.

And when will you go to bed?

Soon, soon. My blood is weary, my son.

Why are you so tired, mother dear?

My heart is heavy like a stone, and I don’t know if I can carry it any longer.

 

The Painter’s Helper

The summer I graduated from an expensive private university in Rochester, New York, the only work I could find was as a painter’s helper. The boss assigned me to Gene, the sprayer for the dormitory job at another nearby college. From 8 to 5 each day, Gene was my parenthetical. Three rooms ahead I hovered, dusting and sanding, taping off fixtures and window frames. When I got too far in front of Gene I’d arc back, dragging along a bucket of water and steel wool, scratching off every unruly dot of paint I could find on window panes and wood doors. In between, with his industrial spray gun, Gene filled the rooms with turmoil, a churning cloud of off-white latex, coating the walls with an easy wave, paint-gun hissing light from his hand.

Every morning bloomed hazy, my body sore. We’d climb into the gutted dorm, its ceilings freshly scraped of asbestos, each room the same long box, hallways extending in hard lines. It seemed like those lines would have to touch at a vanishing point somewhere off in the distance, at the edge of the world, but I could never be sure because I could never see that far. Sometimes I’d stand in a hallway, stupefied by the grind, not knowing where to turn, a kind of limbo, my hands grown rough and scarred and stiff, with my not-very-practical English degree and nowhere to go, lingering until Gene yelled for me, or my boss appeared in the hall and told me to get my ass in gear.

Each night I endured the long, humid hours, car headlights tracking beams across my apartment bedroom walls, thinking about my mother. How she tossed her cigarettes the day she found out. How frail she was that winter, shuffling around her apartment with an oxygen tank by her side, the tubes arched behind her ears and looped under her nose. Of her one good lung. Of the bad lung, removed that fall, and the proper word for it: pneumonectomy. Of her lymph nodes, adrenal glands, oxygen in her blood. Of her alone in that apartment, less than 70 miles away from mine, sleeping to the drone of old black-and-white movies. Of her heart, real and metaphorical. Of her dreams, which I didn’t know because I was afraid to ask. She was 49 years old.

One August afternoon, a storm came in like a charcoal lid sliding across the sky. Rain began to fall, without wind, like threads of thick silk. Dry earth and concrete darkened to black.

We were on break. Gene stood next to me in the doorway. He flexed his arms, rubbed his hands, his face caked in off-white latex except for three connected ovals around his eyes, nose, and mouth, the exact shape of the mask he wore when spraying.

There was nothing infinite about that gutted building, though when I was working there I longed for many things to go on, to last forever. My mother and her scarred body. My father, now remarried with two new kids, and his reticence, his stoicism. (What good would knowing his feelings do me now?) The endless work to be done, the countless wayward dots to be scraped away, the empty dorms and all those rooms waiting to be made new again. The hot summer that lagged and crawled, the summer I wanted to live in, forever. I didn’t know what the future held, and therefore I feared it. Actually, I should say it this way: I had a sense of what the future held, and I didn’t know how I’d survive it.

Now that’s the way to lay it on heavy, Gene said, wiping his hands on a rag, watching the rain come down.

 

michael-henryMichael Henry is co-founder and executive director of Lighthouse Writers Workshop, an independent literary arts center located in downtown Denver. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in places such as 5280 Magazine, Georgetown Review, Threepenny Review, and The Writer, and he’s the author of two books of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own and Active Gods. He’s currently at work on a memoir, entitled The Long Run. View some of his work here.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT/Flickr Creative Commons: Thomas Hammer
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  • Lynn Hall

    Wow, Mike! I love this. So many captivating lines: “Scars ink into clean squares” and “Akimbo spastic motion is what I am.” And this one: “I will take some of what she feels, will keep it as my own.” I didn’t know you were working on a full-length memoir. Cannot wait! (especially with that title)

  • Cathy Bell

    Brilliant, brilliant work, Mike. Wow. Gut punch for sure.