THE SQUARE, bleached box sits high on the wall of the hospital waiting room.
One can't see the strings that hold it nor the buttons to turn it on and off. It defies life and death and gravity, but it does more, and it is profound. Glossy faces howl with delight, and young, robust men and women play games with suited plastic practitioners.
Always there is sound, waves and waves of exaggerated sound barking off information about dating and hobbies and soap. There are flashes of feminine-looking men pretending to be doctors and unscathed lovely women lying about pre-menstrual tensions.
I stare at the stationary geometric unity as colors change and simple speech becomes hysterical. Housewives jump up and down, frothing at the mouth. They hurl themselves at microwave ovens and brittle masters of ceremony who lack the talent for prime time. I can't stop watching. I feel ashamed.
Beneath the box there are rows of whiteness and potential death. Names are called out in the basement of the hospital. Names are called out for needles and rays administered to innocent people against a background that searches for state capitals and unfaithful lovers.
Men and women sit in rows dressed in striped robes waiting to be called hours late . . . waiting to be called. Always, there is a bland body stationed in the corner, waiting to be buried in a room with a number while digits are flashed on a screen and a fortune is won.
The pale rider is wheeled away. There is a sigh among the striped army because now there is no reminder of whom they might become.
People sit with red-chalked crosses on their persons and peculiar caps hiding baldness, and somewhere there is a secret word flashed on the screen. Only the secret word is death, and it may even win a prize.
Someone aches with pain, and a pie is thrown in someone's face on the hanging apparatus. An old man searches for words through a voiceless mouth, and a serious tone tells America that the contestant from Cleveland has won a home computer.
An announcement jabs itself between laugh tracks and orders someone to a treatment room; applause is heard. There is a sign on the wall telling the patient how to cope, while on the elevated box a man discusses his success with a dandruff shampoo. Someone sitting near the coffee machine throws up; a bespectacled expert above talks about ways to win the war against caffeine.
My name is called and I am put on a cold, narrow table. I try to think of something funny while I'm being dehumanized. I try to remember my high school graduation. I wanted to lose my virginity that night. I wanted to be just as popular as Mildred Spooner. I wanted my parents to . . .
A strange man in white elevates me in a room of super gyrations. I strain to remember who it was in the car after the punch. I close my eyes so that I don't see the soiled lab coat, and I remember Freddy. And for a while that does it.
But soon my fingers become numb and my heart starts to pound and I want to cough. I can hear the banging of the films, and I want to cry. So I think and I think . . . and I recall the squared pretense in the waiting room.
I close my eyes tighter and see and hear red-purple people speaking absurdities. Then I make a decision. It's got to be Joe with the freckles, and he's just got to pick Marjorie with the dimples for his secret date.
And please, God, give Valerie a break and let her keep the baby, and then it's over.
Joan Bonato writes from Baltimore.