The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

A Better Place (“The Calling”) —an excerpt

The waiting room was ovular and blue with light yellow and tangerine accents that looked vaguely like exploded fruit on the textured curving walls. People in chairs hunched over in pairs or alone holding pens on strings tied to brown clipboards. Others communed with their phones. Still others stared vacantly forward in the direction of a burbling glass rectangle of fish. Skeleton Chinese pirates did sit-ups on the deck of a sunken junk.

Tyler knew the drill, which was to walk up the short hall connected to the oval waiting room like an air hose to a football and to wait for the only recently pubescent receptionist in her pretend-nurse garb to slide back the glass and check him in on her computer with a flourish of keyboard clicks and facial ticks and to confirm his insurance and to tell him to walk back down the air hose and sit inside the football and stare at the fish until they – the medical establishment, not the fish—called his name. He would be called.

So he did that.

And now here he stood, looking for an open seat. Some of his fellow detainees looked up momentarily, expecting to see a nurse, merrily embonpoint and colorfully clad in scrubs and wearing plastic clogs, carrying a familiar name on her lips, but then, disappointed to see that it was only Tyler, dropping their gaze back to their clipboards or phones or fish or pirates. He did not take it personally. As soon as he was seated, he would be giving the same disappointed look to the next poor bastard who wasn’t a nurse in plastic clogs.

The waiting room was common to a suite of medical offices, so there was always a disparate collection of ailments and complaints that surrounded the fish. Every time Tyler came to see Dr. Matthews he tended to spend his time in the oval trying to imagine who had what medical problem.  This was almost always an impossible task except on those occasions that a pregnant woman was there, fidgeting uncomfortably in her chair.  And even then, pregnant women also needed to see the dentist, or they needed to bring their other, born, children to the pediatrician, or they developed inexplicable lumps, bumps and pains that sent them searching for answers unrelated to gestation. Pregnant women get skin cancer just like everybody else. So guess-the-ailment was mostly just a ridiculous way to pass the time. There was no way to tell what was wrong with people. What ailed them. What made them come to sit in the oval room.

Tyler panned the room for a place to sit, noting a chair next to a gangly, spaghetti-spined, teen-aged boy bent over a tablet device that flashed silently up into his face. On the other side of the chair was a low black table with a box of tissue and a stack of magazines. As much as he generally loathed video games, it was the only chair in the room that was not tightly flanked on both sides with people harboring secret ailments and so Tyler moved for the chair without any further hesitation. It was the best deal the room was going to offer.

Nothing about the boy acknowledged Tyler’s presence, suddenly filling the empty space next to him. His face was passive. Eyes unblinking. He tipped the tablet sharply left and right, forward and back like he was trying to keep a bug from skittering out of a pan. Every now and then one of his legs twitched in a sympathetic urgency.

Tyler sat and leaned over to the table and flipped through the stack of magazines. Sports. Technology. Fashion. Gossip. All of them catered to interests not his own. Each of them, in its way, insulted and taunted him for his age. Generations looking back at him over perfect shoulders, laughing, not waiting for him to catch up. Not wanting him to catch up.

He was now, solidly, three life-phases behind. He was obviously well past the stage when he could credibly claim a participative role in the dominant culture; which was more than just a little ironic, he thought, for a man who had built a small fortune in an industry that, more than any other, was the purveyor of dominant culture. Ironic, yes, but there it was. He had no personal claim to coolness. He was not James Dean. He was not even Hugh Hefner. There was no pretending. That phase was simply gone.

Gone, too, was that phase of pretending to opt out of youthful preoccupations as beneath his dignity; looking with a counterfeit disdain at the American froth bubbling away around his ankles, deigning to be above it, to not want it, taking on arcane interests – collecting Tang Dynasty metalwork and ceramics—as if to prove some naturally contrarian nature.

And now, for many years, he was past even that elongated phase of focused, vicarious participation in all things young and insatiable, fueled by an increasingly unwholesome, vaguely prurient fascination as he looked through the wrong end of the telescope at a world spinning away from him.

What he would not give for those old unwholesome obsessions, he thought. He would settle for those.

But he no longer had the energy. Or the visceral comprehension.

He looked at the laughing, dripping, long-legged model sprawled over the surfboard on the top of the stack. She was not, in her proportions or the gleam in her eyes, unlike any of the nubile ingénues that regularly crossed his path looking to make a name for themselves in one of the movies or television events that Shoofly Studios launched out into the firmament every year. She might have been any one of them. And yet, as he looked at her, she was an alien being, the tips of her naked tentacles burrowing into the sand like earthworms into crystalline soil. Nothing of her touched him.  Except perhaps the part of him that was still curious about things he did not understand. And even that part of him was increasingly too exhausted to care.