There were several more like him in the waiting room. Their skin marked by sun or a lack of moisture, some in house shoes, one woman without a bra. Children eating potato chips. A baby crying. A black family had taken to a corner of the room, stretching over several chairs, by the window. Rain slid down the glass. By the coke machine, a Choctaw woman which Anna found odd.
The entire emergency room was odd, small, the air like pulled cotton.
The young man in front of her and her husband, Bear, wore a torn T-shirt, a skull of some sort across the front, dirty jeans on, the knees worn out, stains of oil, grease, down the length of his legs. He looked the sort: a mechanic. His fingernails were filthy.
Bear didn't want to shake his hand, but he did, because he was from Red Haw.
"You live by the church, yeah? I seen you there. I was born there. I'm Liddy Jennerson's boy, Jasper. I got baptized in that church. You used to play the piano, up there, didn't you."
Bear's wife, Anna, "He still does. I hope you and your family are well."
"Little one there, the girl, she been coughing too much, and then my wife, but we’re all good,” Liddy Jennerson’s boy, Jasper, said.
Anna helped Bear into one of the awful yellow plastic chairs. There was nothing to do now but sit by them. She never dropped her smile. A chair or two down from them, not by them.
"Bear's heart. He has a-fib, it'll flutter now and then. A small worry, but we take no chances."
"Makes me dizzy, like I'm about to faint. Hope she's not got the flu." Bear leaned back and the chair creaked; Jasper’s daughter momentarily lost a flip flop.
"Naw. I hope not."
Anna stepped to the desk and spoke a few minutes to the receptionists. She brought the clipboard of forms back to Bear for him to sign, but his hand shook too much. Bless him. She scribbled his name down and returned the clipboard to one of the unhappy, silent women behind the sliding glass.
Now, they waited.
"Y'all ain't still got that dwarf up at your church do you,” Jasper sort of asked. “She was something else. And she could sing, too. That little keyboard she took with her everywhere. She taught us that one time in Vacation Bible School, I never forget that."
Bear’s eyes were mostly closed, "She's passed away, I'm afraid. Several years ago." Bear shifted in the chair; his face had gotten so red. He was miserable, miserable. Anna looked around and saw that the only magazine on the table by her was a children's magazine. As a gesture of kindness, and hoping it might quell the conversation, she offered it to the coughing little girl.
"She ain't a reader." Jasper's wife finally spoke.
"I'm...I'm. She might like the pictures?"
Jasper's wife turned to her daughter, who was breathless now from coughing, "You wanting to look at pictures, Hope, is that what you want right now." The girl finished her coughing fit and curled up in the chair, pushing her face behind her mother's fat arm.
"I reckon she don't want them magazine pictures." Anna placed the magazine back on the table.
"Hope, that's a beautiful name," Anna said, as apology.
"Yep," Jasper's wife said.
"That's why we named her Hope, I like that name," Jasper spit into an empty water bottle, darkened in the bottom. "Everybody needs hope, don't they. Isn't that something. Now I got hope with me all the time. Names, they're important."
Bear grinned and then lifted a hand to his forehead. A nurse stepped into the hallway, no one could see her, but they heard her, "Jamie Robinson!"
Anna hoped it'd be these poor people beside her and Bear. No, that's right, Jennerson. He’s a Jennerson.
The Choctaw woman stood up and disappeared around the corner, down the hall.
She's a Robinson? Anna thought. This world. I don't know head from tail, anymore.
Jasper needed a cigarette. Bear wanted the bathroom. Hope started coughing again. The black children, there were three of them, kept running back and forth dragging their hands across the windows, smearing potato chip grease the width of their spread-out fingers, crinkling the chip bags. Noise. Hope peered out from behind her mother's fat arm and stared at Anna. Her coughing subsided.
"Get up and go get you some water, Hope." Jasper's wife lifted Hope up straighter in the chair with nothing but her elbow. Hope pulled herself to her feet and walked to the water fountain, her eyes never leaving Anna. Bear found the bathroom, clicked the door locked. Maybe Anna would need a bathroom next. Jasper stood framed in a window, outside, smoking slowly, beneath the awning. The rain a mist, now.
Anna hated children, wasn’t that awful of her. They were strange and unembarrassed. And then.
Suddenly, the entire waiting room fell silent. All she heard was the hiss of the water fountain as Hope stood on tiptoe to reach the pitiful stream pulsing out of the end of the spigot. Anna looked down and studied her buttons. She was alone with Jasper's wife, and she felt quite compact and small because of it.
From the hallway came the voice of another nurse, "Miranda Jennerson!"
Jasper's wife got up (Anna let out a short breath; the woman made her nervous the way she kept at her cuticles) and without retrieving Hope, strode down the hall.
Hope came and sat down right beside Anna in Bear's seat.
"Your mother’s gone down the hall, they called her name.” Anna knew the girl had seen her leave; it didn’t seem to bother the girl, though. “She’s gone around the corner,” is what Anna said, but the girl didn’t move.
The child only blinked and stared. Anna could see the crust of sleep still in her small eyes, little pecans. A large piece of crust, particularly, in her left eye.
“Hope, I think they’ll need you, dear, you should go with your mother so the doctor can look at that cough.”
“We here for Mama. She hurt her fingers.” Anna paused; glancing toward the window, she could see that Jasper was in no hurry to finish that cigarette.
She fidgeted, the child. So did Anna. A thin thread of sweat unraveling under her arms. It was a new blouse, from Chico’s, a powdered blue. The sweat would show easily. Anna squeezed her elbows in, and the cool wet of the sweat furthered her discomfort.
It was then that Bear came out of the restroom, the loud flush swallowing, for a moment, the black children’s restlessness behind her. It was also then that the girl, Hope, began to cough violently, coughing and coughing and coughing, until Anna feared the poor thing would throw up.
A muddy fluid, flecks of corn within it from a late lunch at the Catfish Barn—they shouldn’t have driven over here to eat, they should’ve stayed in Red Haw, she could’ve warmed up leftover chicken, and this emergency room would have never happened. The Catfish Barn was her own awful idea, and then Bear’s heart started skipping out of rhythm, and Anna had decided on a second plate from the buffet choosing to try the corn casserole that had just been brought from the kitchen.
She’d gone and thrown up, so quietly, on her brand-new blouse.
“Bear Moorben!” Another nurse hollered from down the hall, and Bear, having noticed nothing, turned like an old dog and followed after his name.
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