Whispers Fill What Space Is Left [Cate McGowan]

I sneak behind the mob shrilling their silver whistles, screaming through bullhorns, waving posters. The signs scream, BABY KILLER! …Your fetus doesn’t have a choice!  I climb two flights of stairs to an unmarked office, and nausea overtakes me as I enter. I gulp back the bile.

The squat receptionist frowns, missiles a glance at my mid-section as she searches behind me for a companion, a ghost. “You’ll need a ride home.” I lie: “My boyfriend’s parking down the street.” Her eyes lift to heaven. She knows. She peers through the glass, “That’s $400. Cash. And you’ll need a cab after.” She taps her long black fingernail on the clipboard. “Go on, sign-in.” I skim the list of fourteen women ahead of me. All Marys. A most common name.

I find a seat in the middle row. One woman sniffles, leans into her boyfriend’s shoulder. Another squeezes her visibly transgender mate’s tiny hand; both wear security guard uniforms. Everyone avoids eye contact. We ignore the vulnerable window view of mid-day traffic outside the dusty blinds. Though, we do hear the world out there, how the horns bawl, how the busses gurgle by in a crawl.

In the hushed room, we gaze at a viridian wall and its illustrated chart of large saltwater fish. I wonder if some of the sea creatures are sperm whales (an ironic joke I can’t tell here). That evidence-based world fades distant in this cramped room of women whose babies will never have names in our world of mistakes and terrors.

While we sweat it out in the cramped waiting room, the door to the inner office hisses open every seven minutes, and a prickly nurse calls names. I watch each Mary, Mary, and Mary rise. When the door puffs shut, an arrow of scent shoots by redolent of menace and rubbing alcohol.

A man sits next to me and sighs, his wedding band unscratched shine, and he wears his easy air of entitlement— he’s just a guest here. He stares at the floor, re-ties his shoe laces, tugs at his pockets, flips through an old copy of Scientific American with its headline, “Future Jobs Depend on a Science-Based Economy.” There is no future.

The crowd here shifts, swells. There are no seats now. Whispers fill what space is left. People stand, hover, push against a privacy screen papered with paisley, its out-of-date pattern’s diversity dizzying. I swallow hard again. The door swings open. “Mary M.?” This time it’s my turn. I stand, relinquish my chair, try to smile when the attendant apologizes for the long wait.


Cate McGowan is the author of the story collection, True Places Never Are (Moon City Press, 2015), which won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. McGowan’s work appears in literary outlets such as W. W. Norton’s Flash Fiction InternationalGlimmer TrainCrab Orchard Review, Shenandoah(b)oink, and Vestal Review. Find her at www.catemcgowan.com

Inspiration: The recent assault on healthcare by the Trump administration is not new; this piece came out of my experiences escorting women into clinics during the early 1990s when Operation Rescue employed guerilla tactics to block abortions.



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