The Waiting Room

Last Sunday afternoon, an aunt further south tells
me the story of giving birth during Jim Crow
starts with the fact that pains her most: says
negro doctors (she still mostly says negro)
weren’t allowed to practice in hospitals back then—
they cared for us to the seventh month, then sent us the white hospital—says
those fine negro doctors with degrees so much paper
egged us ladies to bring our babies back
so they could see that both patients breathed.
My doctor cried when he sent me off—
I cried too, my aunt tells me, seeing him taken down so—
but went to the city like I’d said that I would—rode a Dixie bus
most of a morning then stood in line with ladies looking flat-out beat, like me.
I was pointed to the Negro Waiting Room
just a hiccup from the white, says
they kept us separate back then—
negroes in a room no bigger than a pantry
where we packed on in like scared children, not none of us saying a word.
When a nurse yelled my surname, I jumped and passed
the White Waiting Room and seen a row of blond leather chairs
and a kidney-shaped table fanned with magazines, says
there was even a rubber tree with leaves as big as a dinner plate
and I wished I could touch them, to see if they was real, but I couldn’t—says
when I got to the room—that nasty room
I didn’t wear no gown and kept the rubbers over my shoes (like I was told)
but my feet kept slipping from the stirrups
and then in come a doctor with dry, pink lips
and I was sure he’d slap my heels if they budged so I made my legs like flint
and next I knew, his fingers were in me, and he kept saying, “That don’t hurt, girl!
That don’t hurt, girl—now hush!”
                                             she says, but it did—so, so bad
and then I pulled my skirt back over my hips
 and he was writing words on a silver chart and raggin’
to his nurse but I couldn’t hear what they was saying—says
the door hung open, so I ran out of that man’s hospital, right to another Dixie bus.
Straight on through Montgomery, I cried and swore I’d not go back
but I did
only this time I pinched the tree, because the hospital let
negroes and whites both use the fine waiting room—
switching us out like sheeps and goats—
one day for whites, the next for us.
My last visit before the baby, I sat on one of them blond leather chairs
and wondered just how the janitor cleaned them, says
which part of a negro do your scrub from a chair and how deep
must you go in the nap—says
anything lye will ruin good leather—maybe plain water saves them
like cast iron skillets, because those can’t take soap—
you just do your best and pretend that they’re clean.
My lovely old aunt tells me she still doesn’t know
what disinfectant they used—
but the rubber tree was real alright, says
the doctor wasn’t any kinder, but this time I didn’t bleed a drop, says
next I recall, your uncle was driving me back
in Mr. Hutchins old Ford truck (imagine that)
filled with apples that ended up bruised (and I still feel so bad)
and then I was in the white hospital again, but this time I wore a gown
and I remember it felt crisp and clean on my skin, like sun-dried
but the yellow-haired nurse said no—
and then I fell to sleep, says,
and they’d done that, too, with their medicines
so they could tie me down. 
And then, I say:
 “Auntie, what are you talking about? Who tied you down?”
But she doesn’t hear me—continues—
I woke on up when it was time to push—
my wrists tied to the table, my legs turkey-trussed to the stirrups, says
I remember my fingers pointed; reached for something to grab aholt of, says
the doctor kept on yelling, “Hush girl!” says,
the nurses just stood on back, staring into my whatnot—
that’s all they seen, where the baby was coming to—says,
they didn’t never touch me—
not more than they had a mind to—
so I was alone, with sweat run into my eyes and wishing
I had someone who loved me to wipe my face dry— says
the first thing I did, when I crossed my door after
was wash those first hands from my child, but I don’t see that you can, says
that first hatred must keep in a black baby’s skin—
and that’s how I had my first baby, says
 never told no one else, figured my peoples knew—
we made it back home, and that’s all that mattered for negroes back then—
turning your key-fob at night.
And by midnight on Sunday, I begin to sob for my aunt—
who was lynched lying on her back, but was shamed by bruised apples. I sob
for the blush of a loaned tenant truck and for silence
in a key-can-sized room of aching feet. 
I sob for disinfectant; for NEGRO disinfectant, for BLACK disinfectant. I sob
for my lovely old aunt—young on a bus for five city hours, and I sob
because she may have stood and hugged a pole for a part of that ride (being black)
and left that part out (as unimportant)—I sob
for my aunt tied down as she pushed and pushed, and I sob
at the thought of a pink-lipped man spreading her whatnot with anything but love
or old-timey patience—at the least, at the fucking least
and I sob at salt in her eyes—in my family’s eyes, as they toiled with hatred—
heads cocked for the set of the sun, to get home
just to get home, and I sob
because she told me that story while holding her recipe for checkerboard cake—
and it was I who broke the telling of it, with nonsense
with cocoa and eggs and plain table salt—
relieved when she didn’t say more.


HEIDI RICHARDSON writes from an 86-year old hobby farm in Southern California. She is currently a junior at CSUSB and writes poetry in between mucking chicken coops and star-gazing from just below the San Bernardino mountains. Her work is forthcoming in the 2013 issue of The Pacific Review.