Broadman & Holman
CALMLY, THE GIRL on the sofa reached out and pulled up a flap of skin on the little boy’s thin arm. It could have been a gesture of affection. But then she pinched the skin and twisted it. Hard.
“Ouch!” He whipped his pencil in front of her face once, like a club, and then cracked it on her forehead. He pulled the pencil back, ready to strike her again, crouching against the back of the couch like a cornered weasel.
The little girl wrinkled up her round freckled face but did not cry out. She looked toward her mom, who was talking to the receptionist. The boy’s mom, seated across the room, didn’t look up. She continued to look through the pages of her magazine, snapping each page like a whip.
“You could have put my eye out!” the freckled girl hissed.
The boy rubbed the two blue marks on his arm. He looked her steadily in the eyes and growled.
His mom called him over. “Come sit by me, honey, and stop making so much noise.” She patted his hair down in the back and smiled at him. She wore lots of eyeliner and widened her eyes to make even sitting in a waiting room seem like an adventure. “You’re such a big man, now,” she had said this morning as she combed his hair and helped him put on his best shirt. She was humming “Getting to Know You” even though her voice quivered just a little. She had put a lot of extra perfume and sprays on this morning. She smelled like the women’s aisle in a drugstore.
Once the little girl’s mom finished with the receptionist and returned to the sofa, the little girl started crying with one soft, unending whine.
The boy rolled his eyes and looked for a book to bury his head in.
“What’s wrong, honey?” the mom asked as she swept her little girl up.
“That boy hit me.”
A stuffy silence reigned in the waiting room except for the sound of the bubbles in the aquarium above the magazine table. The girl’s mother glared at the boy and then at his mother. The boy picked up a children’s book with some torn pages and began studying it seriously. His mom hadn’t been listening to the girl. She was still snapping through the magazine’s pages.
Finally, she threw it down with disgust and looked at her watch again. “I’m going outside to smoke a cigarette, honey,” she said, oblivious to the stares of the mother and daughter across the room. She stood up, adjusted her dress with an efficient tug, and stepped outside the office. They gaped at her departure with their mouths open, like two goldfish.
The aquarium continued to gurgle. In the following silence, the little boy became dramatically interested in the book in front of him. It had been pawed over by a lot of children waiting in this doctor’s office, and the first few pages had been torn out. The pages that remained had rounded corners and smudges along the edges. The little boy squinted his eyes in exaggerated concentration. He preferred the smudged pictures to the astonished fish eyes of the adult across the room.
He studied a picture of a man who wore a robe down to his ankles. He had a beard and a sad look in his eyes. In front of him was a young man with no beard, lying on a stone with his hands tied. The man with a beard had a knife in his hand and had his hand raised high up as if he were going to stab the boy. Out of a cloud an angel was reaching out to grab the hand of the man. The angel hadn’t touched the man yet, but his hand was getting close. The man didn’t yet know that the angel was there.
The boy forgot about the girl and her mother. The color of the man’s robe was so deep and blue. The angel’s wings were more gold than his mother’s best bracelet. The boy on the stone had a robe that was silvery-white like clouds. The sun in the background was redder than any sun he had ever seen. It was as red as a hot dog. The little boy felt he was swimming in this world of rich colors and robes, a sleepy world tempered by the sound of the bubbles in the doctor’s aquarium. The boy put his finger above the picture book, to the right of the book, and then to the left of the book. “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three,” he whispered to himself, touching each of the three points three times.
His mom opened the door and came back in. The summer heat from outside reached in to bathe him in warmth. She shut the door with exasperation. She sat down beside him, reeking of cigarette smoke and hair spray. She adjusted his collar and gave him a nervous smile. “You’re such a big man now,” she said and patted his hair again.
The boy pointed to the man in the robe in the picture.
“Mom, is that boy that man’s son?”
“I don’t know, honey.” She picked up the same magazine again and started ripping through it at lightning speed.
“What’s he doing with the knife, Mom?”
His mom gave a half smile and looked at the picture absentmindedly. “He’s protecting his boy from someone who might hurt him. Stay still, honey. Why is the doctor making us wait so long? If he doesn’t see us by twelve, we’ll have to leave. He ought to pay us for making us wait.”
The boy studied the picture again.
“That’s Abraham, stupid,” the little girl stage-whispered from across the room.
The boy looked at her and scowled. “Yeah, like you know.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and turned it upside down.
His mom backhanded a few more pages, put the magazine down, and looked him in the eyes. She beamed.
“Honey, I have a surprise for you. I’ve been waiting to tell you, and I’ve been looking for the right moment. I guess no moment is really the right moment. At 12:15 today we are going to see Sammy again. He’s come back. He’ll be waiting for us at our place. Isn’t that exciting? Everything will be different. You’ll be nice to him, won’t you? Honey, don’t bite your thumbs, you’ll make them bleed again.”
The boy wouldn’t look at his mom. He stared down at the picture of the man with the knife. Then he looked up at the clock above the receptionist. The little hand was close to the twelve and the big hand was on the eight. He turned the page of the book and another page was torn out. The next page after the torn one had a picture of a man sleeping with his head on a rock. He didn’t have a beard and he looked scared. His robe was a dull gray and looked dirty, but in the background, angels were coming up and down out of the sky on a shimmering stairway.
“I want to camp out on my own like this guy does, away from everybody, away from the house,” he told his mom.
“That’s sweet, honey,” she said as she finished the magazine again and looked at her watch.
The little boy’s lips moved as he carefully scrutinized the words beneath the picture of the man camping out. His eyes got wider. He traced a word with his finger. He almost forgot where he was. “I want to be like this guy,” he whispered.
A man in a suit breezed in and talked to the receptionist.
Immediately his mom sat up straighter. The man finished with the receptionist and turned around and looked for a seat. His mom widened her eyes and smiled at the man. He smiled back.
The next page of the book was also torn out. On the following page was the best picture of all. A youth was wearing a beautiful robe with many different stripes of colors. He seemed so happy and looked as though nothing bad would ever happen to him. A man with a white beard was smiling next to him in the picture. The boy stared at the colors in the book for a long time. If he focused his eyes beyond the page, the colors blurred together like rainbow ice cream. Somehow looking at it kept his stomach from hurting so badly.
“Mom, I want a coat like this one.”
His mom looked at the picture for a moment. Her tone sounded much more patient with him now that the new man was in the waiting room. “Everybody wants a coat like that, honey. You’ll get yours one day.”
The little girl stretched her freckled face up as high as she could so she could see the picture. “That’s Joseph, you toad,” she said hoarsely from across the room. “Don’t you ever go to church?”
Her mother pulled her back close to her lap and said, “Hush.”
The boy looked at the clock. The big hand was on the nine. “Mom, let’s just stay here. It’s nice and cool and our air conditioner doesn’t work at home. I like looking at the books here. I like the fish. Let’s just stay here and not go back home. It’s too hot there.”
His mom looked at her watch again. “Why are your hands so clammy, sweetie? You’re making the book wet. What’s wrong with you? Stop biting your thumb or you’ll make it bleed right before we see the doctor. Do you want to get me into even more trouble?” She smiled at the man as she got up and walked past him to the receptionist.
“Could you tell me how much longer it will be until we can see the doctor? I have another urgent appointment.”
She conferred with the receptionist for a few minutes in hushed tones.
The boy found an envelope in the back of the book with all the colorful pictures. It had bright green writing on it and a red border. The envelope said you could send off for more books with other stories. The boy looked up at the little girl across the room. She was yanking on her mother’s sleeve and whispering something in her ear. She was probably talking about the boy’s mom. While making sure the girl was still looking at her own mom, he carefully folded the envelope once and put it in his jean pocket.
The girl was staring insolently at him again. He wanted to do something to the book. He wanted to add a character to protect the boy from the father with the knife. He reached in his other pocket and pulled out half a red crayon. He wanted to draw a picture in the book. He wanted to put someone in there to help that angel keep that boy from getting cut, but he knew that the girl on the opposite couch would never let him get away with drawing in the book. He pulled out his stack of baseball cards as she continued to stare. He carried only Yankees. He pulled his prize Reggie Jackson card from the stack and began to place it in the book but decided against it. He pulled out a relief pitcher, Dick Tidrow. He would be a good enough guard to help the angel. Then he put the card carefully in the page where the sad man was dressed in the long robe and holding the knife. He made sure that the edge of the card was exactly parallel to the edge of the book. He knew the girl was watching him. He closed the book very slowly and with great respect. Very quietly, with just one finger, he touched three sides of the book again, three times. “One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three,” he said under his breath. He put the book down gently on the table and then put both hands on his stomach and doubled over until his head touched his knees. A groan came out of him before he knew it.
The little girl sneered at him, “You’re nuts!” Her mom held her closer and made a shushing sound.
The boy looked at the clock again as his mom plopped down on the sofa with a snort. The big hand was already past the eleven. “Mom, let’s stay here. We’ve already waited a long time. Let’s stay.”
“Straighten up, sweetie. Why are you bent over? Everything is going to be fine. Soon we will see Sammy and everything will be different. It won’t be like last time. You’ll see. Everything will be fine.” She looked at her watch again then got up to talk to the receptionist. She seemed to be talking faster and faster. Finally she marched back to her son and said firmly, “We’re going now. We’ll have to come back another day. Let’s go, honey. Straighten up and stop frowning.”
She grabbed his hand, but he grabbed the arm of the sofa with his other hand. The arm of the sofa had padding on the top, but a metal support on the side. It was just right for grabbing. She pulled and his knuckles whitened.
“Come on, sweetie, don’t be silly.” She smiled at the man and the other mother. She was petite and could not get her son to loosen his grip. He was small for an eleven-yearold, but his grasp was almost as strong as his mother’s. She reached to loosen his grip with her hand, but he simply grabbed the arm of the sofa with his other hand.
She smiled sweetly to the man and said, “Would you mind helping me, please?”
He hesitated, got up awkwardly, and began to loosen the grip of the other hand. The aquarium began to rumble like a volcano, and both the receptionist and the other mother stood up. The boy was stretched out like a cartoon as the mother pulled and the man pried his fingers from the sofa. In the middle of the hubbub, the little girl came up to hold his torso, as if to protect him from falling. Where her mother couldn’t see, she grabbed the sensitive skin next to his ribs and pulled and twisted at the same time as hard as she could.
In the tussle, the book with the men in robes fell to the floor and the little girl slipped on it. The baseball card slid underneath the sofa. The receptionist picked up the phone to call someone. The other mother grabbed for her daughter. The little boy squealed a high squeal; he was a desperate guinea pig grabbed by many hands.
Finally, the man got both hands loose, and his mom dragged him by the torso and opened the door. He clutched at the frame of the door but couldn’t hold on. By that time, some people in white coats came out with the receptionist and shouted as his mom dragged him out to the steaming parking lot. His mother roared back at them with a curse.
He cried and whimpered for help as he got one last glimpse of the girl looking out at him from the waiting room window.
She stood with her hands on her hips and her tongue sticking out.
Until he ran away from home, a number of years later, the little boy never went back to a doctor.