The Waiting Room – a short story

In the clinic waiting room the air-conditioning hums creating enough background noise to mask individual clicks of cell phones. It is a large room about thirty by sixty. The ceiling height is emphasized by the absence of a suspended ceiling; instead, there are floating acoustical panels and light fixtures accentuated by a black painted abyss of ducts, structure and conduit. The entry wall has tall glass windows overlooking a parking lot. It is hot outside. The room’s occupants are thankful that the air conditioning is so efficient and are scattered along the teal and blue seats on the room’s perimeter and around an ellipse-shaped island of seats in the middle. Most are occupied by their illuminated screens shrouded in internet anonymity. In a state-run psychiatric clinic like this the unpaying patients hesitate to look at anyone else long enough to make eye contact.

An emaciated, tall, elderly, lady with scrawny hair sits awkwardly in her chair, she has her mouth open and stares vacantly ahead. Occasionally the young man three vacant chairs away from her shakes his dread locks and surreptitiously glances at her before returning to his phone. An overweight mother with a toddler sits opposite. The child is absorbed by his game, but she is nervous and twists her hands together; she scans the room with unseeing eyes. Along the opposite wall sits, a heavily tattooed youth sitting next to a woman with manicured nails who appears be her mother: both are engrossed in their phone displays. The staff sit behind protective sliding glass windows on the innermost wall. At regular intervals, the door to the clinics opens and a nurse emerges to either usher a patient out or to call another to their appointment. “John, Lisa, Sue’ the names sound familial and friendly.

A man enters. He is talking to himself or to anyone who cares to listen. His voice is loud, all glance up from their pacifiers. He strides to the reception and bellows at the receptionist. When he turns, he shouts,

“I need my pills; they’ve lost my appointment. They are incompetent!” He rambles on with something about this being the only country in the world where healthcare isn’t free. The occupants in the room all squirm each hoping that he won’t come near or address them individually.

He mounts a chair beside a lady in a black tee and jeans on one of the center seats. She looks at him giving the impression that she is interested. He sits on the arm of the chair and takes off his red baseball cap. His head is partially bald with a 2” mohawk-like plume down the middle. He runs his fingers through his hair. He tells everyone,

“I cut my own hair.”

As he replaces his cap, he scans the room and continues his monologue,

” I have insomnia. I didn’t sleep last night. Been up since three.”

He jumps off the seat and paces, holding forth in a tirade of incomprehensible words including a recognizable quote from Shakespeare. He goes to the window and regales the receptions who sits behind her unopened window. He hitches up his shorts, takes off his cap, waves it around, returns it to his head, and remounts the chair next to the lady in black. She says something to him and he calms a little to respond. Then he is up again and exits into the parking lot with the words,

“I’m just a crazy guy!”

The lady in black remarks,

“You are right about that!” other adds,

“Yes, indeed!”

The cone of silence in the room is smashed. The expectant patients test their individual responses to this dynamic. They become a friendly group and ask one another questions and talk to eachother. Someone asks the lady in black,

“Are you with him?” She responds,

“No, I talk to him to try to calm him. To be polite. I hoped to make him sit down.”

Then he is back storming around the room talking about what his dog likes to eat in the morning. The lady in black remarks,

“I also have a dog. He’s a Jack Russel.”

A nurse emerges and calls his name. He strides up to her with the announcement,

“I’m jumping the line, Any one care?”

“No, they nod in unison, go ahead!”

While he is gone the patients continue to talk to each other and the lady in black strikes up a discussion about dogs with the man opposite her. She moves to the chair adjacent to his and their conversation intensifies; apparently, he is also a dog owner. Just as the room begins to relax the man comes out of the treatment door. He appears calmer, waves his red cap and strides resolutely outside.

As he exits the first police car arrives, then a second. Each discharges a pair of officers in blue uniforms, bullet proof vests, and arrays of combat weaponry strapped around their ample waists. Another can be seen to have appeared behind the reception area glass talking to the receptionists. Fifteen minutes slip by but the man does not reappear. The police evaporate.

The waiting room rapidly resumes its earlier silence ruled by the hum of air conditioning and gentle taps on cell phones.

11 thoughts on “The Waiting Room – a short story

  1. vigorously sketched; we all know waiting rooms like that, why just the other day ,,,, where do these loud people come from and why must they bellow ; i love the line about lifting their eyes from ‘their pacifiers’ 🙂 I enjoyed this 🙂

  2. Very well written short, Jane,

    And you do have a way with words. Love the story and your style.

    I thought I was the only one who caught that – “all glance up from their pacifiers” – but looks like Jane (Sturgeon) did too. Nice touch. Says plenty.

    The staff did take the precaution of buzzing for the cops. Not a safe work place, is it?


    • Yes, you are right these ‘free’ clinics for psych patients are not safe places. I think that most medical waiting rooms have similar dynamics it’s just these iterations or lack thereof get magnified when psychiatric patients are involved. The waiting room story that tops the list is Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”
      Thank you for taking the time to visit & comment!

  3. The word ‘pacifiers’ jumps out from this story, Jane. So many souls struggling to make sense of things. Beautiful, descriptive writing. Hugs. xXx

  4. Yes indeed we do have some strange characters among us and they say its a thin line between genius and insanity. I always keep an active interest in traffic coming toward me on the road and speculate who could be popping pills and drugs and tend to be rather aggressive on and off the road. Wouldn’t it be hard to work in a hospital or clinic these days?

    • Here, in the USA, I know of no safe place for those with mental handicaps. They end up as society’s rejected dregs on the streets. We have an epidemic of these homeless people here in Austin. Those in the waiting room were the lucky ones, but if they wait too long they also,will transition outside.

      • There was a news report on this two nights ago in Australia. We used to have adequate facilities for these mentally handicapped people but somehow through the privacy acts and litigation prompted by lawyers these were closed out one by one as risks for those looking after them legally were just too great. So we have much the same problem here it seems. Sad world!

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