This is it, Autumn thought. Everyone was another body she’d have to wait behind. As the people streamed in and trickled out of the lifeless concrete heap, she shuffled across the parking lot and into the building.
It was stuffy and gross inside. The room was tidy without being clean, bleached by an industrial-grade disinfectant and a once-a-week janitor. There were fake plants positioned at random, and a series of pictures, probably from Walmart, whose eight and half by eleven inch frames contained the inanities of wax fruits and potted plants. Autumn sighed. It was her fault for letting her license expire. Even as the months had fallen away like the petals of a flower, she’d failed to make an appointment. Now here she was, wasting this perfectly good afternoon on a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. At least someone had possessed the mercy to install air conditioning. Still, it could have been a few degrees cooler.
The line was something monstrous. It began here and ended there, lacking any clear sense of direction. Weaving in and out of itself, it wrapped around like some giant arcade centipede, sucking the life out of those trapped inside. Waiting in its stomach, the people twiddled their thumbs, occupying space and killing time. How barbaric it was to be forced to renew her license in person! This was the 21st century, wasn’t it? The one with emails, digital registries, technology? There wasn’t one good reason why this couldn’t have been handled online.
Merging into the beast, Autumn found herself behind a rotund man. He had a big hairy boil protruding from his collar that snatched her gaze and held it incessantly. A mother with a whining child appeared behind and sandwiched her inside the line. As she began counting her breaths, she reminded herself that this, too, was only temporary. It wasn’t that she thought she was better than these other people, or that nobody else hated this sardine existence: it was the extreme pointlessness of having to fiddle away what could have been a perfectly good afternoon. She thought about time traveling, as she often did in dull moments, and the prospect of watching her life speed ahead through the line. She wouldn’t want to skip it entirely — no, there’d be satisfaction in watching the frozen people melt away, and then flashing out of here.
Autumn was filled with sad sympathy as she paraded her eyes across the room, stuffed with bored, tired faces caught up in their smart phones. Everyone wanted to leave. Everyone had something at home, something important, a long list of to-dos hanging on the fridge that seemed to grow faster than any pen could hope to strike. And then the thought occurred to her — life is made of an endless line of moments like these! — and it pressed down upon her, making the world spin with the absurdity of everything as the room multiplied in psychedelic insanity.
It was hard not to go there sometimes. Somebody’s cousin had posted this video on social media a week ago. There was this girl. She was standing on a train platform beside a man. Clearly, they’d been drinking. At first, they just wrapped their arms around each other, like they were saying goodbye or something, but when the train started to pull away, the girl went after it. She reached for an open door, trying to hop on, except that when she jumped, she tripped. Everything became a pixelated blur as the camera ran toward the accident, somebody’s shrieks barely audible in the background. Autumn had watched the video a dozen times before she’d shut her computer off without understanding why she couldn’t stop. The girl’s final moment had been so pathetic. It was like one of those illusions where once you saw the secret, you couldn’t unsee it. Waiting in line, she wondered, did the rest of them see it, too?
The boil seemed to wave at her face. The boy standing behind her tugged on his mother’s sleeve, begging for attention in a particularly obnoxious octave; lost in whatever app she used to kill time, the woman paid him no notice, which only made him tug more loudly. A crew-cut man in a Brooks Brothers suit was having a conversation at a decibel that declared his importance. Further ahead was an older women, near her golden years, who seemed, oddly enough, to be impervious to the everydayness of the room. The lady’s gray hair caught the florescent light and glistened like a salmon as it swam up a river. The line was the great equalizer: everyone was subject to its merciless patience, but even as the people coughed and farted, stinking up the room, she smiled, looking so at ease.
Autumn first tried counting breaths, then the boil’s little black hairs, and found herself thinking about all the things she might be doing at home. Here she was, at the peak of her youth, still unburdened by the wear of those late night shots and cigarettes, as the day outside slipped away. The people staggered about miserably. What did they think about? Those indelible lists, magneted to the fridge, and the promise of how much better and happier they’d be once they’d finished this chore? Autumn wondered if DMV employees had to wait in line, too, and then started to wish she had just gone to work, but when she remembered the growing pile of papers on her desk, she felt even sadder.
Once she was done here, what would she do? Run to the Walgreen’s for whatever she’d forgotten last time, or a grocery store for a nutritious dinner? Wherever she went, there’d be more lines. The awful prospect of waiting, waiting, waiting loomed ahead. How much time did she waste in a line? As the decades stretched ahead, she thought about all the days, months, years that she’d spend occupying space and tapping her little foot at the inconceivability of it all until the moment that her turn finally arrived and she could go off to do something that mattered. Even the promise of retiring home was soured by the fact that even the next thing would come with a wait. The whole of her life was an infinite interval of lines and the tiny events they interspersed, which she hardly even inhabited for want of being elsewhere.
As the boil crept ahead, the boy behind her sniffled, and his mom scolded him to be quiet. It became the gray lady’s turn, and she advanced to the desk, her mood no more affected by the completion of the task than it had been by the line situation. The lady’s hands rested at her side, comfortable with just being there, not like how Autumn’s hands felt ridiculous when they had nothing to do. She looked so at ease! Autumn pondered grabbing those little black hairs and ripping them out of that fat neck, and then she felt guilty for having the thought. Killing time. What an expression.
As soon as it had arrived, the lady’s turn ended. Having achieved her purpose, she drifted away from the teller’s desk and floated from the room. By the time Autumn realized that she was next, even after waiting for nearly an hour, she could hardly have been less ready. She forgot why she was there, then stammered through questions about her name, age, and residence, and when the whole affair had concluded, she couldn’t remember anything about it. There was a slip of perforated paper in her hands that meant she could go home. That was all that mattered.
The thought of the gray lady hung about Autumn as she stepped out of the DMV and into the afternoon. Light from the sun tore through the clouds, scorching the earth and nearly blinding her. All around were sights and sounds she had never noticed before, and they disappeared almost as suddenly as they’d arrived. There was a crowd forming near the street. Autumn found herself moving toward them. Making her way onto the sidewalk, she stepped in a puddle. Something dark was at her feet — somebody must have spilt…
Autumn’s eyes wandered from the curb and into the road. There, in the street, was the gray lady, and pooling innocuously at the side of the curb, a crimson trail that bled from her broken body. Recoiling from the puddle, her eyes moved across the pair of mangled legs to the stomach that spewed across the pavement and then the rest of her cast aside like a stringless puppet wearing the same easy look in her eyes like nothing had changed. She turned toward the crowd but couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. There was the mother from before, different now, her features arranging themselves into disgust, then shock, and finally tenderness as the whining child burrowed his cheek into her side. A sixteen wheel truck was speeding into the distance, and in the sky was a yellow bird, whose song reminded Autumn of something familiar but far away.