Writings and Reflections

Incident in the Main Waiting Room

by Lloyd B. Abrams

The goddamn subway took so long getting up to Penn Station that I ended up missing my usual late train, the 8:06 local to Babylon, stopping at Woodhaven and Jamaica and everywhere in between. You know, one that still had a bar car. I’m more pissed off than usual; it’s bad enough that I had to come in on a Saturday to catch up. But now, I’ve gotta wait. Even though many others have the grand illusion, in this miniature underground city of one thousand and one delights, that there’s a lot that to do to fill up the time, all I really want to do is to get on the damn train and buy a beer and catch a nap and get off at Lindenhurst and get into my ten-year old car and drive home to my one-bedroom apartment and sit down to a decent dinner—yeah, if you call frozen ravioli nuked in the microwave decent—and then, finally, I’ll be able to unwind from a crappy day in an empty office with the boss, sitting on his fat ass in his big Connecticut home, calling in, like clockwork, every hour on the goddamn hour. Another hour on a Saturday night to kill. Damn it all. Damn it to Hell!

The dingy waiting room across from the LIRR gates, as always, is a joke. Hard plastic seats packed close together. A few down- and-outers milling around, trying not to attract attention. And the fat old lady with the shopping bags. Why do the cops let her sit there? She’s got to be just about the worst, with the open sores on her legs, splayed for all to see, with that obscene wizened face and the rictus smile, and just looking at her, you could almost hear and see the unimaginably bizarre thoughts and delusions running through what is left of her mind. How can these dregs live this way? But hey—at least they’re home. Yeah, that’s funny! At least they’re home, and I won’t be for another two hours or so. If the train’s on time.

So I slowly walk around to kill time and I feel way out of synch with the crowds scurrying around and hurrying past me. I look into the discount book store and I know it has the same stuff as always. I’m even too tired to walk in and give the books a second or third or hundredth glance. I also realize that I’m too worn out to get a hard-on over those lovely young secretaries, assistant bookkeepers and buyers who’ve also wasted a Saturday, now on their way home to their boyfriends and husbands and starter apartments in the suburbs. Oh well…it’s their tough luck that they won’t have me to make them happy tonight. So I decide to take the elevator up to the main waiting room and sit around for a while. Anything’s better than sticking around in this rushing river of people on their way to somewhere else.

I sit down on the well-worn wooden bench and place my attache next to me on the bench. I’m “city smart” enough—or paranoid enough—it’s all in the point of view, I guess—to keep my hand firmly on the case. I close my eyes and I try to shut out the random noises and the flashes of unpleasant memories—my crappy job, the two failed marriages, a couple of empty love affairs—that bubble up so sourly from my “kishkes”—my intestines—from way down deep inside. Then like a wink, like a light switch just between on and off, there comes the heavy-headedness that is so welcome and comforting, like when a Valium first starts to take effect, and the noises fade down to a dull hum and then, almost silence. My eyes begin to feel even heavier and my head sinks down to my chest.

I awaken with a start, sensing a presence—and at the same time smelling the acrid body odor that took me up and out of a dream about something that made me feel good…really good, if you know what I mean—a presence of someone standing directly in front of me—someone who’s much too close. Before I react, a con man’s voice with a kidding, childlike lilt says to me, “I betcha can’t guess what I got in this bag.” The words come at me like a challenge, a tease, a public schoolyard lunchtime dare.

My eyes focus in on a brown leather pocketbook-sized bag which has been thrust right in my face, almost touching my nose. Stained and discolored, it has a leather lace for a drawstring, with an almost profanely pregnant quality about it, as if something were pulsating wickedly inside. “C’mon, guess,” the voice now demands. “You really wanna know what I got.”

I force myself to stop reacting for a moment—a mental pause, a momentary time out—and then I say, “What the hell do you want from me?” For I suddenly realize that I don’t exactly feel threatened—really, I don’t—but, rather, very aggravated about being awakened and bothered by this guy, who’s got be some kind of freak, and who’s right inside my space. Maybe just another New York City homegrown asshole.

I look up, away from the bag —did it just throb?—no it couldn’t have— and I’m staring directly into the piercing gray eyes of a short, pasty-faced guy with a long white unkempt beard—Jesus, I can’t believe it—a Hasid, no less—wearing the obligatory long black coat and black hat. He could’ve been fifty or he could’ve been eighty—they all look the same to me—but it’s hard to tell because the bearded face is almost devoid of color and identifying features, except for the deep wrinkles on his forehead. His eyes avert my stare for just a second, and then they regain their hold on me. A brief smile shows that maybe—just maybe—he’s kidding around, but his eyes retain their intensity as he says, now with a discernible Yiddish accent—why hadn’t I heard it before?—“C’mon…give me a guess.”

I relax just a bit. I would’ve said, “It’s your nuts” or something equally as New York friendly, except that this person—well, you know about the Hasidim being all serious and all that—just like priests—and maybe closer to God than the rest of us—except that this old man standing before me might have been offended, or even worse. As if I should’ve cared. So I say, with only slightly more patience, “How the hell should I know?”

“Just one guess,” he whines. “You gotta give me a guess. It’s part of the game.”

This guy has really crossed over the edge. What are they teaching them in basement rooms of the shtiebels, in the back rooms illuminated by dim light bulbs and gray sunlight through grimy windows, while they sit hunched over the holy books, reading and studying, arguing and davening? And I immediately flash back, remembering the pictures on my grandmother’s calendars from the Home of the Sages of Israel. I quickly glance at my watch and realize I’ve just missed the 9:06 and at this hour they’re running every hour or so—with no expresses, goddamn it—and I have more time to waste. So I decide to go along—what do I have to lose?—and I try to think of some funny response. I blurt out, “It’s my grandmother’s heart,” which is the first stupid thing that comes to mind. It might have been a bit offensive to him, but what the hell.

“Nope, you’re wrong,” he responds expressionlessly, with that annoying accent, with no humor whatsoever—not even an inkling that I might have been fooling around. “You want another guess?” he asks, almost like a threat.

“No, I don’t” I say, matching his intonation quite by accident. “Why don’t you just go away now and leave me alone”—something I should have said right at the beginning.

But he ignores me. Still standing over me, but then having backed away just a few inches to give me a little room, he says, “Okay, I’ll give you a clue.” With a subtle beckoning hand motion, he makes me want to look inside the bag, and he starts to untie and loosen the drawstring. I’m almost absolutely sure that the bag quivered.

He slowly licks his lips, clears his throat, lowers his voice and he begins, secretively and almost whisper-like, to chant the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, a prayer that even the least devout Jew would recognize. Nervously, I glance around to see if anyone is watching, but everyone nearby is engrossed in something else. Nobody is even watching this one-act play of deranged urban drama. The bag flutters faintly in his grasp as he entices me to peer more closely into the ever so tiny opening. I’m sitting mesmerized and transfixed and then I look into the bag and I don’t see anything at first. The chanting of the Hebrew words continues. But wait a minute, inside there’s—there’s something dark and amorphous and a slimy roundness. There’s also the stench of cheap wet leather. Then from inside emanates a welcome warmth and the harsh sting of rejection. There’s a dryness in my throat—I try to swallow— and there’s the very palpable throbbing of my heart beating in my chest.

My head starts to throb. Inside it, as if from outside—but I know all too well that it is from within—come red-hot explosions of mortal desperation, of terrors so well-hidden that just the acknowledgment that they are from within makes me shiver, exposing me entirely, rendering me naked and hopeless, without any possibility of covering my inner eyes to the blackest, the foulest, the most despicable infestations of the human soul. I feel like I’ve been struck, like I’ve been stricken. I cringe and I shudder and I scream without sound.

And then suddenly and mercifully it stops. The bright light, the everyday sounds of passing humanity, the muted conversations of people around us, the announcement of the boarding of a Metroliner to “Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,” all at once register into my consciousness. I feel myself covered with sweat; I’m gasping for air. I’m hot and I’m cold and I’m paralyzed and I’m completely overwhelmed.

I realize with horror he’s still there, standing in front of me. And then, yet again, the taunting, “Wanna take another look?” The bag is thrust right under my face. He opens it fully now, stretching wide the opening with vengeance and spitefulness. I can’t—I’m unable to—turn away. I can sense without seeing the sneer on this demon’s—this—it’s gotta be!—this dybbuk’s mocking face. But I dare not look up again. My mortal dreads, the hauntings of my mind, the depths of my trepidations, are released to spew forth, like a festering abscess that’s just been lanced. The bag becomes the receptacle of my primordial anguish and the excretions of my soul. I can’t resist being drawn in. The drumming in my temples becomes excruciating. Beads of sweat run unavoidably down my forehead and into my eyes. I feel like I’m going to faint; light-headedness saps me of my resolve. There’s no way out. There’s no returning. There’s no…

From far away, from over the hours and the years and the aeons and the ages, I hear the teasing whiny voice with the Yiddish accent saying, with just a hint of a chuckle, “What I have here in my bag is…your soul.” And then the sound of the snapping of the leather drawstrings. I barely hear his one last muffled triumphant word: “Gotcha…” And then nothingness.

* * * * * * *

The bag lady in the dirty coat sat on the floor in the corner, laughing with uncontrollable mirth, gaps in her front teeth, as the emergency medical technicians failed to revive the unconscious man slumped over on the wooden bench. She laughed even harder when his body was unceremoniously dumped on the stretcher, when his body and face were covered with a sheet, when the body was strapped to the gurney, and when the gurney was wheeled away to be packed up inside the ambulance waiting outside.

On the rain-slick streets en route to the city morgue, the driver reached up to flick a switch so that the lights of the ambulance were no longer flashing.

Up to the beginning of the story

November 26, 1984 with last major revision, February 24, 1998…Copyright © 1998, Lloyd B. Abrams
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