Problem Free Afternoon

First published as recipient of the 2011 University of Rochester Creative Excellence Award in Humanities

On this Friday afternoon, Doris briefly remembered what it was like to live the dream, have everything work out okay. This happened while she was reading in the hospital’s large waiting room, the one off to the side of the lobby. The story was about a family frolicking at home. She tried to channel herself into their life, their Friday afternoon, Janet and Al in sunny California with a son, 10 and daughter, 8. Three of the four were blondes. Dark haired Al sported a well trimmed mustache, a countenance of success, but you could tell that he might not share his secret for having cultured the kernels of the American dream. He would tell you that his secrecy was for your own good. You needed to discover this on your own, be independent, self serving. Part of his secret was that this made him more free as well. If he could speak, if he came alive on page 37 upper right hand corner, he might paperlessly turn to you and pronounce, “to each his own”, as if he were giving you a gift. Such a generous guy.

Doris might have made it, she might have been able to slide up into the picture on the page, except for the bundle of drama that walked into their shared space just then: a mother (older sister?) very downcast, two small children seeming to prop her up, give her continuing forward motion, nothing more. For a moment it looked as if they would simply circle around in the large room, its many couches, arm chairs strewn about, and fail to come in for a landing. The kids, tagging along, bumping and pushing into the woman, were here, as kids typically are, taking in the sights, recognizing that more than a couple of the adults were tracking their uncertain passage. The woman however was still there, and it was easy to imagine that this meant a cubicle in the emergency department, or a partially curtained bed with metal railings in the ICU, a place that was urgently nowhere in particular, meant to be functional, public, frequently swept clean with the next customer and his or her retinue, another disposition.

In the waiting room, Doris observed that the couch closest to her was still empty. Doris sat in the single arm chair a couple feet distant. When the little retinue passed by the first time, Doris let out a submerged sigh of relief. But it wasn’t over, and in the next approach, the woman looked up at Doris at the precise moment that Doris looked up at the woman, there was contact, the woman stopped, the kids bumped into her again, the woman yelled forward to address the kids behind her, “for crying out loud!”. There was a mean spirit in it, or so it seemed. But when the woman addressed Doris, she said “is this seat taken?”, pointing to the near-by couch, in a very pleasant shift of tone.

“Of course not!” said Doris, pleasantly in return, maybe a little excessively.

The woman, her kids (or relations), hesitated, then sat oh so heavily, the kids seeming to jump, hoping the look-like-leather was a miniature trampoline, and they bounced once or twice till they apparently got The Look, at which point they settled into the deepest recesses of the corners of the couch, faces down, eyes upward toward her. Sit. Good boy. A bag was placed first on the couch and then as if on second thought positioned securely in the woman’s substantial lap.

There was an air of hesitation, expectancy, Al and his central casting offspring would likely have to hang out on the page awhile longer, you could hear it coming, the new neighbor on the near-by couch said, “He was perfectly fine this morning. Well, fine as he has been, sugar, you know, too damn much beer, but do you think he listens?”

It might have been a question.

She added, “He says he was doing nothing wrong.”

“He has sugar?”

“What? No, that’s about the only thing he doesn’t have, well now maybe he does, how would he know, do you think he would go to his doctor? You know how stubborn a stubborn man can be, can’t teach nobody nothing they don’t want to learn, save your breath.” An exhale. “Lord!”

The kids no longer sat silently, they had moved forward, were asking for something from her, telling her what they wanted, and how they wanted it now.

Al would be suave, he would wordlessly let them know that they inherited a world where they will win, where they will get what they want, but they will have to prepare first for such a responsibility, sew some wild oats before they settle down to their serious draft into stewardship. His kids will smile, from the side it might be mistaken for a smirk. They have many sheltered years to come before the college tours start in 11th grade.

A whine, near slap, a movement so fast that Doris couldn’t tell whether she saw a hand come out from behind the bag. Or not. Something surely was rustled. The kids sat back sharply, eyes wide open.

Doris took a deep breath, pursed her lips, scrunched up her eyebrows, opened her own eyes wide. And the woman noticed. Which might, or might not, have been a good thing.

While the woman looked down at the bag on her lap, she said in a quiet voice, “You got kids?”
Doris leaned forward, wondering if she was the one being addressed. The woman continued to look downward, beginning to fuss with the top of her bag, and Doris taking the leap that she was now part of this party answered, “two,” and then “I’m sorry…”


“Three. Actually.”

“You got three kids?”

“One died… passed… maybe 10 years ago.” Or twenty, or thirty, or maybe never.

And this raised up the woman’s face.

“Shot,” the woman said.

Doris was about to say: No, we lived in the suburbs, actually he contracted an unusual blood infection, it was (and then she did say aloud) “one in a million. They say it’s one in a million.”

“Happens more often than that,” the woman said, looking up at her, getting out a crumpled tissue from her bag.

Doris wondered how she would know this. Wondered if they had more in common than she first guessed.
“It’s life on the streets today. God help us all. You do everything you know to do, and it ain’t enough. Shot. And all he was doing was standing on the porch talking to his old friend from high school, you know, the Magnet school on Genesee Street.

“Wilson High?”

“Right. Just standing on the porch. Of a warm evening.”

Doris adjusted herself in her single chair. Noticed that the children had settled down, had been given an assortment of story books, puzzle books, activities, crayons. Treasures from the bag.

“I don’t want to be forward?” voice rising.

The woman looked at her. “Honey, my bet is that won’t be a problem.”

“Oh. Well. So. The reason you are here is that you, ah, had someone shot, I mean there was, you know, a trauma.”

The woman looked at her, “I’m here today for Reginald. Reginald…”

The kids looked up and started to say “daddy!!” and the woman instinctively reached over to them and arranged a few crayons.

“…Reginald is having some kind of…” she checked the kids renewed focus on their work at hand, “… attack of some sort or other, they don’t know, stroke, heart, gall bladder. The man hasn’t seen a doctor in years. He’s not on our insurance, the social worker says she’ll have some papers to fill out later, maybe it’ll take care of it. But if the van is any measure of things, everything will just slowly but surely fall apart.”

Doris started to nod her head in the affirmative, wasn’t really aware she had started to do so, “Maintenance,” she said, hoping to hit it right.

The woman smiled, “If he’d spend the money on it. If he had the money to spend.” And then, “you can’t do what you can’t do.” A slight hesitation. “You?”

“Me?” as if this was the first time in a long time anyone had asked. She wasn’t quite sure what was being asked. “One of the kids’ wives…” she started to say, but this sounded too awkward, “Chelsea, Brad’s wife, lot of severe gastric, you know, stomach pain.”


“Well, what is serious is her two kids who will have to get picked up after school, 4th and 5th graders,” and she declined to name the rather upper income district that Brad lived in. “Brad is off again on business, Kansas City I think, or maybe that was last week.”

“Have him bring you back some ribs.”

“Yeah,” she said, looking down at her hands, just as her neighbor did, as if on coordinated cue.

“Ribs,” she repeated, “they know how to do them right.”

Some time passed. Doris said, “I had a million other things I was going to do today.”

“This wasn’t the plan.”

“No, I guess not.”

“Never is.” The woman looked up at Doris, and this raised Doris’ face in turn. “You don’t sound used to it yet.”

Doris released a muffled groan. “I don’t want to get used to it.”

Some little sound, maybe “mmm”, but then clearly “Yep.”

“I have a life,” Doris said, not liking how she could almost hear a younger, much younger, version of herself complain.

The other woman hesitated, said, “This isn’t it?”

“Oh,” almost laughing, “I should hope not.”

It definitely was: “Mmmmmhmmmm.” And then “Yet here we are.” Followed by, “who knew?” And then, “so what was it you were going to do today?”

Doris pictured spending some time with mustachioed Al in sunny California, hoped his wife and kids wouldn’t mind. Al wouldn’t mind spreading some good news about wealth, happiness, living the good life. She thought about how she had to cancel her Diocesan committee meeting at 1pm, had already scrubbed the chance to get out to the Driving Range near the condo and hit some balls, something she hadn’t done for some time and had been looking forward to doing. Working on her swing, the placement of her feet, the nearly silent camaraderie of fellow practitioners of the sport, all aiming to improve their game, fair to better, better to good, good to really good.

“Maybe I’m being too personal,” the woman said, pushing a few of the other crayons toward her kids.

A family of five came into the waiting area, saw Doris and her neighbor, appeared to silently and unanimously decide to pick somewhere else to land. They entered with such energy, restiveness, that you could almost see it hovering up and around them in a faintly outlined field of emission, all this engagement with whatever it was that brought them here too, to wait.

Doris noticed, as did her neighbor, that over half of the room’s current occupants had looked up to watch the newest small parade, the dynamic of decision, direction, that familiar taking control of what remains, the shock to one’s system about how little control there is and how suddenly it is wrenched away. Control now appearing as just one more illusion. Add it to the list. And then there are the stories about family, its hierarchy, the approximations of who really wears the pants or dresses. The long lost fight with that particular cousin, and now he is a hero or demon, she is a saint or goat, depending on the answer to the phone call that came out of the blue at 4:17 a.m..

Doris and her neighbor overheard: “Mom, she might not even have been home yet, I don’t even think she knows that we’re here.” “Yes, I will call again in a few minutes.” “That’s not what’s important right now.”

Doris said, and now she was really reaching for it, nodding her head to her partner, the gesture meant to point out the intensity of all this talk around them, now lowering her voice and pointing it right at her neighbor with laser like focus, “Their stories will either sustain them or give way like sand, take them apart.”

One of the kids suddenly complained, grabbed his sister’s green and red crayons, both.

“Stop that!” said their caretaker. “Hush!”

And after the kids had settled the immediate crayon grab, and had resumed filling their respective pages with large globs of distinct and otherwise marks of color, Doris answered, “It wasn’t going to be anything very important.”

“Beg pardon?”

“What I had planned to do this afternoon. Wasn’t all that important.”

“Well, now,” said the neighbor, “it was important to you, though, wasn’t it?”

Doris looked around the room. In the corner someone stretched out and sleeping, the newly arrived waiting room members beginning to take their opinionated sides more definitively, and way across the room a much older woman sitting in a couch by herself appearing to read the same page over and over again, looking up expectantly like clockwork for the person who was yet to arrive to tell her something, anything, some piece of information that would release her moment, let her move forward a small step.

“Okay,” said Doris. “A meeting,” hesitating, “and a chance to play a little golf.”

Her neighbor sat up straight. “Say what?”

“A meeting and…”

“No. The other thing. Did you say golf?”

“Golf, golfing.”

“You serious?”

“Uhm. Yes.”

“Walk around a park and hit that little white ball?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“Oh man!”

Doris sat still, feeling like some kind of bloated and privileged superior, ashamed, proud, not ready to let go of one single unfair entitlement, willing to pay the price of embarrassment as long as the deck could still, for a few more years, be stacked in her favor, as it had been in the beginning, was now, but unfortunately not for ever more shall be.

“I,” her neighbor started, “have wanted to play that for years,” She looked across the room, “Mmmnnnnhmmm, yes ma’am. You know Augusta?”

Doris hesitated, “…no, Augusta who?”

“Augusta Georgia. Every April. Oh the branches all have their leaves and this is in April mind you, all we still have are these grey skies and dead looking trees.”

“The Masters Tournament?”

“I think that’s what they call it. Winner gets a green jacket you could never wear to anything, ugly, at least on most of those players.”

“So you follow golf?”

“Volunteered at the Ryder Cup when it was in Rochester, what ’93? ’94?”

“I’ve yet to make it to a tournament, just play a little…”

“…The Brits took it at the very end, right in front of my eyes. I really felt like I was a witness to something.”

There was a nurse or some kind of patient tech person who had entered the room, kept stopping by at the nearest chairs to ask a name, was coming slowly this way. Doris noticed because she faced in that direction. Her neighbor did not.

“Maddy Washington?” a voice called from the distance of two chairs and one large artificial plant.

Maddy swung around. “Lord have mercy!” she answered, “you surprised me.”

“Ms. Washington?” the staff member confirmed.

“Yes honey.”

“Hi. Dr. Srinavasin wanted to speak with you.”

“Oh. Good news I hope.”

The kids started jumping again, and a bunch of the crayons fell to the floor. “Daddy?”

The staff member smiled in their direction, but there was something in the smile that was disconcerting, unnecessarily sympathetic.

Doris reached down and picked up the crayons that she saw, scattered here and there, helping Maddy who was already in action gathering things, speaking to the staff member, speaking to the children, to the staff member asking “Is he alright?” to which the staff member said “the doctor can give you that information” and the staff member gave a second partial smile, looked over to Doris, assessed their relationship, sensed they weren’t related, and let her provisional smile go dark, disappear, no smile, not grim, just business.

Maddy had gathered the kids, and had in her haste gone two chairs and one couch away without saying anything, one of the kids tugged on her hand, Maddy noticed and turned around, said “Pleasure,” to Doris.

“You too,” Doris answered, and then raising her voice “Good luck,” and over half the room’s occupants turned their attention in Doris’ direction, or so it seemed.

A little time passed by. Doris thought about picking up her magazine, but somehow just didn’t have the energy. In the meantime, a pleasant young couple came in, asked whether Maddy’s seat was taken and Doris had to think for just an instant before saying, “No, no, please,” by way of invitation.

The couple thanked her, took their seat, and quickly appeared to resume an intense but warm conversation between the two of them. Doris looked at the cover of her magazine. She looked down at the rug, saw that there were three crayons, purple, green, red, just underneath the small couch, the woman’s stylish shoe kept moving back and forth, nearly touching the purple one. This went on for a couple minutes. The heel of the shoe got within an inch, in fact may have bumped it once but the young woman didn’t notice.

Doris said, “Excuse me,” to the couple, she had interrupted them mid sentence, there was no way around that, they had been talking so quickly to each other. They stopped abruptly and looked at her, neither friendly nor unfriendly.

She was going to bend over, she would retrieve the three crayons that Maddy’s kids had dropped on the carpet, purple, red and green, really close to the woman’s right shoe, right there. She might explain whose crayons they were. The couple was waiting for an explanation. The young man looked a little bit like a younger Al, minus the mustache. It was important to retrieve what she could. Everyone was having such a day. Things happen so quickly.

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