A Tale of the DMV as told by Margaret Atwood | Theresa Marshall

We sit in what had once been chairs. They are still chairs, technically, but they are really old now, and I like to complain. We sit huddled together, emitting one mass unnamable stench: cologne? Sweat? Urine? It is impossible to tell. Stalls line the perimeter. The lights flicker, and beneath them stare blank eyes. They watch us like spectators, slowly they call out numbers: 75, 76, 77. I look down, I’m number 188.

Every now and then someone will miss their number, miss their chance, and be forced to take a new tab from the little machine by the door—curiously guarded by a rent-a-cop. We watch them fall, condemned to another day of mindless waiting—and all I can think is: thank God it wasn’t me. There’s a palpable sense of yearning, for time to speed up, for a better system, for breakfast tacos.

79,80,81. We learn how to sit close to one another without touching. We learn how to avoid the homeless woman in the corner yelling obscenities, and that weird yellow puddle in the middle of the floor. As the numbers tick past we look at one another and wonder if there’s enough time to go to the hall and get a Sprite from the vending machine. Too risky.

Sometimes we listen to the conversations at the front. You’re missing your registration, your insurance isn’t current, or, worst of all, you can’t do that at this DMV. Eventually, we stop listening. The conversations are only a reminder of the futility, the inevitable end.

I watch the girl beside me. She’s nervous, her leg shakes like a meth addict’s, or someone on a juice cleanse. She clutches her license plate, her ID, every document she’s ever been given, and her will to live. Her name is Lyla. She doesn’t stand a chance. I watch as she walks to the counter, she hands over her number: 98. She smiles like we’ve been taught to do. She gives them each document one-by-one, but she’s missing something. She starts to panic; she doesn’t have her proof of title. There’s still some fight in her, I know there is. Maybe, I think, maybe somehow she’ll get through. You’ll have to come back, they tell her. She weeps quietly and turns to leave.

I wonder where she is now. She’s probably dead.

91,92,93. I fantasize about the outside world. I daydream about water fountains, about not sitting next to an obese man eating a tuna salad, about getting that wad of gum off my shoe. I imagine the smell of fresh air—I can barely remember the sensation. I can feel myself growing older, my bones weakening, my tongue suddenly preferring the taste of Werther’s Originals to more contemporary candies like Sour Patch Kids, or Air Heads.

We did this to ourselves, I think. We built this system—we are responsible for its treatment. If I make it out of here alive, I’ll be nicer to people. I’ll love harder, I’ll fight for the marginalized, I’ll start RSVPing in a timely manner. But I won’t make it out. I know that, just as everyone around me knows it too. We sit silently, clutching our little paper numbers, 94,95,96, listening to Muzak and wondering if Beyoncé has to put up with this shit.


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