I arrived with my hand wrapped in a blood-drenched paper towel. The seats, on first glance, looked to be completely occupied. A young man saw me holding my right hand up in the air, stood up and gestured for me to take his chair.

Luckily, I’d had enough foresight to grab a handful of paper towels and stuff them into my bag. I peeled off the blood-drenched one, pushing it into a plastic sack I’d thought to bring, and began to wrap a second length of clean white towel around my bleeding hand.

The old man next to me, whose left eye was pink and running, as if a person could cry out of only one side, said, “That looks bad.”

“Yes. I cut it.”

That was the beginning of a very long night.

But let me say this, I had never been to the Emergency Room before. That simple fact makes me quite lucky. I didn’t know that a person could die there, without ever having been seen by a doctor.

“I was changing the light bulb,” I said to my neighbor, who seemed interested in my plight. “The light fixture shattered in my hand.”

“Just like that?” he asked. He was running a pale blue handkerchief under his dripping eye.

“Just like that,” I said back.

The last thing I wanted was to hear what was going on with his eye. Blood gushing from my hand and my anxiety over it had already made my head woozy and my stomach upset. It didn’t feel right not to show some interest, so I turned to him and said, “And your eye?”

He took the sky blue handkerchief away from his face, dropping his hand down to his lap. I judged him to be in his early seventies. He was African American, with light brown skin and gray-white hair that had hints of blue on the side when he turned his head.

“Woke up like this today. Don’t know where it come from. Spider bite, I suppose. Kept getting worse, so I thought I’d better come see somebody.”

A woman sat next to the old man, looking at him when he talked. She was somewhere in her late forties, I would have guessed, with black curly hair and round dark eyes.

“Funny how it happens,” the old man said now. “You think everything’s fine and then bam. Somethin’s not right.”

The woman nodded her head, as if she knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Have you been waiting long?” I asked the old man. My hand suddenly throbbed.

“I been here since four o’clock.”

He said this so matter-of-factly. It was, at that moment, getting close to nine.

“Five hours?” I asked, just to make sure I’d heard him correctly.

“I guess that’s right.” He shook his head from side to side and once again wiped his eye.

The woman on his other side leaned in closer to us and I could see that she wanted to be included in the conversation.

“Have you been here long?” I asked, looking straight at the woman so she’d know the question was for her.

“I been here since two o’clock.”

“Two o’clock? Oh my God.”

My distress seemed to make my bleeding hand throb even more.

Before I had a chance to ask, the woman began to tell her story. As she did, I noticed that the left side of her face was bruised, a dark purplish-gray, and swollen.

“I fell,” she said. “I didn’t know that the stool was broken. It wobbled and before I knew it, I’m on the floor.”

She stuck her right hand out now and I saw that it too was gray and purple and puffed up, like her face.

At that moment, I noticed a guy to my right. He was younger than the rest of us, with long straight hair bleached by the sun. He was wearing baggy bright blue shorts, the kind that sometimes doubled as a bathing suit, and he had a blood-soaked beach towel wrapped around his thigh.

“And you,” I said, looking down at his leg and then up to meet his eyes. “What happened to you?”

“Totally freaky,” he said, and shook his head back and forth. The long blond hair whipped around his face. “I was surfin’ and this glassy wave comes up. Caught it just right and started ridin’ it in, smooth. But then freakin’ A, I’m in the water and there’s a big hunka metal, slices me straight across.”

To make the point, he used his flat right hand to cut the air over his injured thigh.

“You should get a tetanus shot,” I told him.

“Yeah, probably should. But I been here since one o’clock and nobody’s come out to help me.”

“One o’clock?” I said. Now, it was certain. I, like this cute young guy, was going to bleed to death, right here under these super-bright lights.

The woman next to the young surfer moved her chair so those further away could hear her. She’d woken up that morning with the curse of women everywhere—a bladder infection. She’d had one before and knew all she needed was a course of antibiotics but without insurance, the only way to get them was to sit here and wait for someone to see her.

Like the rest of us, after describing the symptoms that had brought her here, she told us how long she’d waited so far.

“Noon,” she said. I felt the thick clouds of doom gathering over my head turn even darker.

“You ain’t allowed to have no emergency,” he said. “See, poor folks, they always got emergencies. No money. No job. Too much drinkin’ and drugs. We is an emergency. They tired of that. They say, you mess up, you deal with it.“

You can imagine that we reached a point before long when one person and then the next needed to scoot their chairs back a few inches so that another injured soul could move in close to tell his story. It was only a matter of time before we’d turned those neat rows, which looked like an airport waiting room, into a circle of sharing and grief. We let each person tell how they’d come to this place. The injuries and ailments went from the mild to severe, with bleeding from a deep or lesser wound being one of the near constants. The more people joined the circle and talked, the worse our situation seemed. At one point, after a woman who’d been punched in the mouth by a boyfriend she claimed was fine when he hadn’t been drinking said she arrived in the Emergency Room that morning at nine and still hadn’t been seen, I turned to my neighbor, whose dripping eye had completely saturated his handkerchief.

“I’m wondering if we will get taken care of at all.”

The old man, who’d introduced himself as William Shine, shook his head, letting a weak, sad grin take over his mouth.

“Oh, you know, they always come out,” he said. “Eventually. They just want you to wait and make you understand.”

“Understand what?” I asked, trying hard to talk to the man without looking at his eye, the sight of which, all red, gooey, and oozing, made me sick.

“They need us to know that we nuthin’. Just nuthin’. That’s what this country all about.”

I’d never considered such things before, especially since this was my first-ever visit to the Emergency Room.

“But why would they do that? Aren’t we all here because we’ve had an emergency happen? Isn’t this the Emergency Room?”

The old man laughed. I couldn’t figure out what I’d said that could possibly be funny.

“You ain’t allowed to have no emergency,” he said. “See, poor folks, they always got emergencies. No money. No job. Too much drinkin’ and drugs. We is an emergency. They tired of that. They say, you mess up, you deal with it.“

“But I’m not poor,” I said to the old man.

He looked at me through his one good eye, while he held the blue handkerchief over the other.

“Not yet, you ain’t,” he said and laughed again.

It was midnight by now. Not a single member of our wounded circle had gotten seen. We’d long since stopped expecting this to happen.

Weak light entering a row of wide windows on the north side signaled that the morning had dawned. I hadn’t thought I’d slept but suddenly realized that sometime in the middle of the night, I must have dozed off. Everyone in the circle was sleeping now, some with mouths open, a few snoring loudly, all with their heads fallen to the side.

My hand throbbed. I tried to move the fingers of my injured hand but the stiffness made that impossible.

I felt hungry but nauseous at the same time. For a moment there, I wondered if not realizing it, sometime in the night I had died. I moved the fingers of my good hand and then lifted the hand to my mouth and exhaled warmly. My breath smelled foul, a sure sign I was still alive.

It hit me then that we could no longer sit there and let fate or the system or whatever had kept our whole sorry group untended to—some for an entire day and all of us through the night—allow us to die. I put my hand on the old man’s arm and said, “Wake up. It’s time.”

“What, what’s goin’ on?”

“Nothing,” I said. “We just need to get up and do something. Otherwise, some of us are going to die.”

Slowly, then, the old man and I roused the others. Ones in better shape helped the more seriously hurt to the bathroom and then over to the drinking fountain for some water. Several women combed their hair and washed their faces. A young woman who’d been beaten tried covering up her bruises with a little pancake makeup.

I led the way over to the counter. The line of us snaked across the waiting room and around, next to the far wall and over, along by the windows. I didn’t bother to stop at the desk, where three women sat staring at computer screens. Even when I heard one of the women shout, “Where are you going,” I continued to walk.

I pushed open the double doors and the others began to follow me. The hall was brightly lit with doors, all closed, on both sides.

No one emerged from the closed doors, though the line of us stood there for a few moments and waited. I turned to the old man behind me now.

By this time, his upper and lower lids had swollen, making the weeping eye appear almost closed. An oozing white puss ran down from the inner and outer corners of his eye, all the way to his cheekbone and jaw.

“I’m thinking that we should try going through this first door.”

I gestured with my right hand to the closed door on that side, hoping he could see me with his one good eye. He nodded his head and I turned back around.

The double doors both pushed in at the same time. We entered another hallway, brightly lit, though narrower than the preceding one. Blue plastic chairs, all empty, waited outside more closed doors. The only sounds I heard were the quiet footsteps of the injured people coming in behind me.

Without saying a word to anyone, I moved up the hall and opened the first door on my right. The passageway was a mirror image of the one I’d just stepped out of, only a bit narrower. By now, the group behind me had begun to whisper amongst themselves. Otherwise, the place was completely silent.

More closed doors awaited us. I figured by now there was nothing to do but keep opening one closed door after the other, until we found a doctor or nurse to help.

The next door was different. It led into a room full of machines, metal, with blinking lights in holiday colors of gold, red, and green. Unlike the series of hallways we’d just passed through, the room was dark and very cool. Also, once we’d stepped in the door, there was nowhere to go but out the same way we’d entered.

For the first time, the thought entered my mind.

“Do you think?” I said, turning around to face the old man behind me.

“Ain’t nobody here,” he said, as if reading my thoughts.

The hunger and nausea in my stomach were now overshadowed by a gnawing sense of fear.

“There isn’t, is there?” I said, knowing the answer to the question that opened up a world of fear and even more questions.

We found the bandages in a room at the end of the hall. The old man helped me split the group into teams. Those in better shape tended to the most seriously wounded. The surfer, whose name was Josh, came back with a basket full of antibiotics and painkillers, after searching through cabinets in rooms on several different floors.

That afternoon, when Josh was feeling better, the antibiotics and painkillers having started to work, he went out and picked up soft drinks and pizzas. In the evening after we’d eaten, the old man started to sing.

Those of us still awake, just a handful at that late hour, applauded when he was done.

“That’s an old spiritual,” the old man explained. “You see, when black people was slaves, they had to escape some way. So they did it with their minds and with their music.”

“Can you sing it again?” I asked.

The old man started to hum. He stopped and looked around at the group gathered on the floor of what had once been an operating room. Lights, IV machines, and heart monitors surrounded us.

“I need some help,” he said.

He started to hum, but this time way down low in his throat. Josh joined in next, humming in a sweet tenor. Carmen, whose purple-bruised cheek was beginning to fade at the edges to lavender, added a smoky alto hum. I attempted to harmonize, in a very rusty soprano.

The humming lifted out the doors of the operating room and drifted down the hall. The severely injured lay in metal beds on both sides, some alert enough to hear. Without knowing why, several of them joined in.

Those who could carry a tune came together with the tone-deaf. Sopranos joined with baritones, while altos flirted with the tenors. Heads with hair that was straight and kinky, curly and thin, black, brown, gray, and dyed red, lay against pillows as the air throbbed with a humming that resembled a church choir.

William Shine looked at me, still managing to hum while he smiled. I was relieved to see that he no longer needed to dab his running eye.

Patty_Somlo photo80x100.jpgPatty Somlo is a short story writer and former journalist. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Baltimore Sun, The Honolulu Star Bulletin, The Santa Clara Review, The Sand Hill Review, Fringe Magazine, and Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos 2010), and is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review (October 2010) and several anthologies. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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