120 Minutes in Hell
My back’s to the wall. I can hear the faint crackle of simmering human flesh, and smell the putrid odor. There’s a little boy – maybe four years old – climbing on the folding chairs in front of me. Crunching. Forever crunching on some pieces of hard candy he picked up off the dirty floor. Every once in a while his face gets red and he looks at me and coughs. And every time he does that, I think he’s about to choke to death and my eyes scan the crowd in a panic for anybody that looks like he might belong to them. At last count there were 52 people in here, but, since then, they’ve come in three at a time while only a few have made it out. A tiny sign atop the filing cabinet says “Number now being served – 80”. My number is 91. My mother was right. I should have lead a better life. She said I’d have to pay for my sins someday. That day is here. Dante was a whining pansy. I’m in hell. I’m in the Revenue Office.
All the people coming in here have exactly the same look on their faces. Horror. They look at me (I’m the first one inside the door) and say, “Busy place, ain’t it?” Every one of them. Like it’s script and these people are all trying out for the same part. “Busy place, ain’t it?” I nod, and continue writing on the back of my Personal Property Assessment envelope, because I don’t want to miss a minute of this. This is among the greatest of life’s lessons. Like death itself.
This is how Big Brother controls us here. You people in other states probably don’t know about this. We HAVE to drive here. That’s the only way to get around. No public transportation to speak of. No city busses. No trains. To us, Subway is a sandwich shop. Dig? In order to drive, we have to have licenses – in our pockets and on our cars (or pickups). In order to get those, we have to come here. To Hell. They give us a list of things to bring: Inspection sticker; proof of insurance; proof of Personal Property Assessment; proof that we paid last year’s Personal Property Tax; shoe size; Blood and urine samples; a list of our last 10 sexual partners; our first born children. Then, during the long hours waiting in the lines here, they subliminally plant messages into our brains to check that little box on our tax returns to donate to the Presidential Election Fund. And God knows what else.
The old guy in the white cap just walked away from the “Express Lane” (that is a hysterical term) that he’d been standing in for 15 minutes or so. “Next time I get stopped” he says loudly, “We’re gonna to court. Me and you both gonna be down there, I’m afraid!”
The lady behind the counter – obviously hardened from years of being forced to inflict this most hideous of human torture – just ignores him and looks up and gives that sinister grin to the next poor soul in line. The old man is sitting down now, up there in the front row, throwing a hissy fit to some absolute stranger next to him.
The ladies over at the County Assessor’s desks have only a few people waiting in their lines. They don’t even have to take a number. One of them has been on the phone for the past ten minutes, using hand motions to describe her new drapes, while the waiting customer’s foot taps spastically on the floor. I notice that my foot is doing the same thing.
What has become of my life? How did I come to be in such a horrible place? Why is this kid wiping his sticky hands all over my pants leg? All I ever wanted was to get my tags transferred over to my new van. But no! First you gotta go to the insurance office and get some stupid little card. And then you gotta take it to the Assessor. And then she asks you if you assessed your stuff for this year, and you don’t know because your wife takes care of all that stuff. And then she asks you if you paid your last year’s taxes, and you don’t know because your wife takes care of all that stuff, too. So she gets on the phone to the Courthouse and asks somebody that has access to a computer and ends up talking to them for the next ten minutes telling them about her stupid new drapes! Then she fills you out a new assessment sheet and you sign it and think you’re done. But no. She tells you to go take a number and sit in Hell and wait. And wait. And wait.
The little boy with the candy and sticky hands just walked past me on his way out (Thank God) and took the opportunity to take a swipe at my pen – causing a long scribble across the envelope. The lady behind the counter calls out number 84. The guy in the white hat just lit up a cigarette, and he’s sitting there, daring somebody to tell him that he’s not allowed to smoke in here.
“Well, just tell me WHAT I gotta have!” demands another voice from the Express Lane. In a few seconds the guy storms past me and out the door. Right behind him runs another man, carrying the papers the guy left laying on the counter. “Sir!”
I’m remembering the guy in the tower at the University of Texas back in the 60’s. I’m wondering if the state of Texas used this same system of vehicle license renewal.
The old man in the white cap is leaning over the counter now, butting in line. The clerk is raising her voice to him. She’s explaining that they don’t have enough people to do whatever it is he wants to do. He sits back down and wakes the guy behind him up so he can bitch about it to somebody new.
Oh, boy! A lady just walked in here with another little kid. My neck’s getting sore from nodding. “Yes. It IS a busy place. What the hell did you expect you moron? This is the Revenue Office, you blithering idiot! Have you never been here before? Why would you be so socially irresponsible as to bring a child into an environment such as this? Nobody should have to face this until they’re at least 18!”
I came in here at 11am. It’s 12:45. They just called number 87. I really do need to go next door to the laundry and use that nasty restroom, but it’s a cinch that, if I did, somebody would steal my chair and I’d have to sit up there with the rest of the zombies. One thing about this place – there are no politics here. Everybody is treated the same…like cattle. Lined up on the chairs in front of me are young people, old people, businessmen, chicken farmers, church ladies, truck drivers, and one dude that I think is a TV weatherman.
Everybody has to wait. And wait. And wait. People are developing lasting relationships with folks they just met in here. Agreeing to stay in touch. Loaning each other money. Giving birth. Raising their children. Dying.
The thought just occurred to me that I’ll have to hand that woman these envelopes I’m writing this on, if I do live long enough to complete my quest here. I hope she doesn’t take the time to read this story. With her obvious lightning clerical speed, I might have to go build a house or something while
Wow! There’s a woman that’s been sitting over at the far end of the room since before I got here. She just realized that she was supposed to take a number, and didn’t. She’s turning a little green. I think she’s going to blow breakfast.
What a terrible thing to happen! She’s looking around the room now to see if anybody has noticed. You know, like when you’re a kid and you have some really dumb wreck on your bicycle? Or when you’re walking into a store or something, checking out some babes, and turn and slam your face into a post? Or the time I was laughing at a couple of my friends who had been involved in a wreck, while driving by it, and rear-ended a third car I hadn’t seen? Only this had to be much worse. This lady has wasted all this time here. By the way she’s dressed, I’m guessing she was a much younger person when she came in.
91? Are you sure?
But, this poor woman. Should I give her my number? She’s old. I don’t think she could possibly live long enough to start at the end of the line now. The little take-a-number thing is all the way back around to number 27.
She’s calling it again. 91. 91. 91.
She’s looking frustrated! Going for 92!!
Tuff break, grandma. I’m outta here!