The Waiting Room Reader: Stories To Keep You Company, Vol.1

Senior Editor: Joan Cusack Handler
The Waiting Room Reader: Stories To Keep You Company, Vol.1

The Waiting Room Reader: Stories to Keep You Company was published in 2009, with generous co-sponsorship by The Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism in Medicine and support from the Liana Foundation. This series, which is designed to help reduce the stress and anxiety of patients and their caregivers waiting for medical care, follows a belief that high quality literature should be available to anyone when they might need it most.

Contributors include: Joseph O. Legaspi, Sondra Gash, Christine Korfhage, Catherine Doty, Howard Levy, Ross Gay, Karen Chase, Andrea Carter Brown, Jack Wiler, Richard Jeffery Newman, Susan Jackson, Celia Bland, Peggy Penn, Robert Cording, Georgianna Orsini, Joan Cusack Handler, Teresa Carson, Christian Barter, Laurie Lamon, Joan Seliger Sidney, Eloise Bruce, Moyra Donaldson, Sherry Fairchok, and Mark Nepo.

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From the introduction:

“Like you, we too have been patients in waiting rooms of doctors’ offices and hospitals. Sometimes for routine care; other times for critical care. We too have waited for x-rays or our annual physical. We too have undergone surgeries and waited long hours alone while a loved one—somewhere beyond our reach—drifted in and out of surgery-induced sleep. In all cases, the wait seemed endless. We’ve needed patience; we’ve needed laughter; sometimes we’ve needed hope. We’ve wished we had company. We thought you might need these too.

In that spirit, we have gathered here a collection of stories and thoughts that focus on life’s gifts and experiences: love and family, food and home, work and play, dreams and the earth. Each piece is short—a page or two at most, some a few lines—to read in any order. So start anyplace; read one, read two, read them all. Hopefully, your wait will seem shorter.” —Joan Cusack Handler

Selected Poems:

How to Fall in Love with Your Father

Put your hands beneath his armpits, bend your knees,
wait for the clasp of his thinning arms; the best lock
cheek to cheek. Move slow. Do not, right now,

recall the shapes he traced yesterday
on your back, moments before being wheeled to surgery.
Do not pretend the anxious calligraphy of touch
was sign beyond some unspeakable animal stammer. Do not

go back further into the landscape of silence you both
tended, with body and breath, until it nearly obscured all
but the genetic gravity between you.

And do not imagine wind now blowing that landscape
into a river which spills into a sea. Because it doesn’t.
That’s not this love poem. In this love poem
the son trains himself to the task at hand,
which is simple, which is, finally, the only task
he has ever had, which is lifting
the father to his feet.

Ross Gay

The Soup

On the day of your scan I make a soup
to wean us from meat. Beans soak and blanch
an hour while I slit open the cell-
ophane wrap on the celery, chopping
the ribs into small pieces, the size
of the stones that follow an avalanche.
Carrots sliced into see-through orange mem-
branes, others hacked into jagged boulders, bi-
sected as though by the pressure of shift-
ing plates. Onions at knife point, suppurate
and toss themselves into the hot oil. What
is left? two blind see-no-evil potatoes.
Sweet herbs: I pull apart ovate leaves
of basil and sweet marjoram. Red kidney
beans slip out of their bladder skins, rubbing
against the Great Limas. Together,
they give off a kind of scum which keeps down
the foaming boil; instead it heaves and
swells, trembling like a bosom but does not
spill out. Thank God for scum! I rinse my knife,
watching its gleaming edge rotate under
the water; now there is only the wait.

Peggy Penn

On a Beethoven Cello Sonata

What would this cell be saying
if cellos could speak? But that
is a silly question; it is already
muttering behind, soaring over
in sudden realization, conversing
matter-of-factly with the piano,
which is clearly the timid one,
the one who makes excuses for his
outspoken friend, restates things
ironically, without emphasis, that we
might remember them as being
something less than the heartbreaking
visions of a mad soul. Listening
to this sonata, we may realize
that the thoughts we put into sentences
have no grip on us, take on
meaning only in long legato lines
that could have been made of anything, even
the scratching of a horse’s hairs on his own guts.

What I love about Beethoven is what
I so often hate about myself:
he never finishes anything. The strain
that labors cadence after cadence toward
resolution, wresting its course away
from the pestering piano, arrives
only after everything is so changed
that where it meant to go is no longer
possible, is there only as a memory
of where we might have rested. Perhaps
it isn’t me, but life itself I hate
for this deception, though without it
(am I right about this?)
there is no beauty anywhere.

Christian Barter

Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey

If I arrived early, I had to listen
To hundreds of sewing machines
Spiraling their high-pitched arias
Up against the mill’s metal shell.

Each woman, a soloist withdrawn
Into her small cubical of work,
San the crazy hope of piecework –
Another zipper, another dollar.

A wall chart traced their numbers
In money’s green line. It didn’t
Record the pain when someone
Ran the needle through her finger.

I came at noon – between classes
At the state college where I read
Marx, and day-dreamed revolution –
To eat lunch with my grandmother.

Exactly at noon, there was a moment
Of quiet between the machines
Shutting down and the women rising
In common with their bag lunches.

They gathered at long metal tables.
High above them, a narrow strip
Of eave windows gave the only sign
Of weather and, sun, or gloom,

Let down a long flume of light
In which the women’s bodies
Slowly relaxed, their lunches spread
Before them, and the patter of talk

Began in all those different tongues –
Haitian Creole, Canadian French,
Mexican and Puerto Rican Spanish,
Polish, Romanian, English,

Jamaican English – that spoke as one
The gospel of sacrifice and hard work.
They shared frayed photographs,
Smoked, spread the good news

Of children and grandchildren,
This one smart as a whip, this one
Taking dance lessons, this on a sight
To see hitting a baseball. There were

Some they worried about collectively,
And one who actually gave up booze
And became the man of their prayers.
Many more, of course, would not

Be saved no matter how hard
They worked. No end to the curses
And slammed doors, the hands
And faces bloodied by impotence

And rage. I often left the mill
Wondering if their hard ritual
Of work-eat-sleep-work ever changed
The state of daily lousiness at all.

The women believed, or had to
Believe. Over thirty years ago,
And still I see them returning to
Their machines, the unforgiving

Clock running once again,
The women bending to their work,
Losing themselves freely in that noisy
Oblivion because each of them

Cradles a secret happiness – that someone,
Working at his own sweet time,
Might tell the story many years later
Of how he had come to be saved.

Robert Cording

Why I Don’t Drive a New Car

On the spring nights we drove them home
our first cars were beautiful:
sprung seats padded with greasy pillows,
chrome corroded, dings as endearing as freckles
and, when we leaned on the horns,
nasal bleats, foggy duck calls, or low and solemn farts.
We named our first cars:
Perdita, Joe Pickle, The Mermaid.
We had so many places we wanted to go.

Some mornings, when we weren’t home
but waking up,
the sight of our cars from a second-story window
was all that we had to lash us to the earth.
When one of our cars was broken
our friends roamed the terrible cities
to find us in front of our houses, waving frantic,
and took us into their cars,
safe between their laundry and their lovers.

And what was as pretty as young, unbreakable bodies
tumbling from old Volkswagens at Sandy Hook?
And, if a parent died, what rich consolation
we felt at the sight of a dozen or so of us
spilling like clowns from a Day-Glo painted Valiant.
No, I don’t need to be nagged to buckle my belt
in a voice as cold and fake as a Burger King milkshake.

Here’s to a car that a pal can puke Southern Comfort in!
Here’s to a car with a creamed corn can for a muffler!
Here’s to the discontinued and disenfranchised,
longing for those parts no longer available.
I’ll drive my rusting bones in a clamoring wreck,
a car like our first cars,
the cars that we loved
when we thought that we knew where it was
we wanted to go.

Catherine Doty


I’m out driving with my friends.
We’re driving down US 1 from Russian River.
We’ve been to several wineries
and I’ve had six great wines
and several bad wines.
It’s a beautiful day in a beautiful land.
The red wine I can’t taste
because I’ve lost my sense of smell.
Then, at one winery, we’re offered a Shiraz
That’s so rich and deep,
it explodes in my nose and mouth
and my head and I lean back and say
thank you.
Thank you for this wine,
for this day with my friends,
and then we leave.
So right here you’d think it all ends and
you’d be wrong.
Because right here it begins.
We drive down through the valley
and it’s not all that impressive.
Then we wheel out to the coast
and God says,
take a look chump.
It’s spread out all around.
Like you’d never expect.
Sheer cliffs, sun glinting off beaches no one
should ever see.

Jack Wiler

Further books

  • Orphans
  • Confessions of Joan the Tall
  • GlOrious
  • The Red Canoe: Love In Its Making
  • The Breath Of Parted Lips: Voices From The Robert Frost Place, Vol.1.

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