In Dr. Andrei's Waiting Room

My wife informed me that National Public Radio was holding short story contest for really, really short stories (under 600 words). Once upon a time I fancied myself a fiction writer. I wasn't very good at it, but I did try at one time to write some very, very short stories when I was younger.

I happened across one the other day and sent it into NPR. There is a kind of simplicity and charm in it that I could never manage now. Unfortunately, I don't think I read the contest rules very closely, so I expect this won't fit the bill. There needed to be a mention of a newspaper left on a table or some such thing. Anyway, for the sake of posterity, here was my entry, which was written a long, long time ago.

Just recently I met a dentist named Dr. Andrei in a neighborhood tavern. He was a very pale and imposing Estonian dentist with deep-set eyes and blue shadows where his temples should have been. A few days later I went to see him. His office was a quiet place with dirty gray walls, old leather furniture and magazines eight years out of date. I almost laughed when I walked in; it could have been Sam Spade’s office. An old man snored in a chair as I sat down and began to wait for my appointment.

The room was very still but for the continual soft clatter of clocks ticking out of unison. Strangely, Dr. Andrei’s waiting room contained four antique clocks, one on each wall. Each was made of a different wood -- one of cherry, one of mahogany, one of pine, and one, I think, was made of plum wood. As I waited I thought about trees being chopped down, milled into boards and built into clocks. The old man snored.

Then the plum wood clock chimed familiarly in four ascending and descending tones: bong, bong, bong, bong -- bong, bong, bing, bong. The old man woke up and sang to himself, “Lord through this hour, grant us thy power.”

“I never knew there were lyrics,” I said.

Oh, yes, all chimes are forms of prayer.”

We began to talk after that, introduced ourselves and waited together. We talked about work, family, health, and once or twice it seemed to me he was about to doze off. His face, gaunt and sunken, wanted to be solemn, but two watery blue eyes spoiled the effect. He could almost have been taken for dead but for those eyes. Then a pause came into our conversation and I struggled for something to say.

“Have you lived here all your life?” I asked.

“Not yet,” he said.

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