heart blown through
Jody Hobbs Hessler
DeMarco’s reeks of nachos, onion rings, and decades of beer-soaked floorboards. A half dozen university students shoot darts in the back. A mop-headed guy at least half Irv’s age nods at him from the bar. Irv tugs out a stool and orders a whiskey. Scoops a fist of pretzels from a bowl along the bar to mix with the salad souring in his belly and give the whiskey a place to land. How many people besides him walk into bars when they don’t know what else to do? Must be a lot, but everybody else here seems like they mean to be.
One minute Mary was sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling up her socks for the morning. Next, she pitched over, twisting and dry coughing on the floor, one sock on, the other still in her hand. It was a heart attack, a faulty valve, they said. Now, she’s been teetering in some twilight world of never waking up for the past three weeks, strapped down with IVs, surrounded by machines that belch and flash a sounds-and-lights symphony of her life. A birth defect ticking time bomb. Which would piss her off if she ever finds out about it, because she’s a stickler for healthy eating and exercise, in better shape at sixty than most people are at twenty. After what the doctor said today, though, looks like she won’t find out.
He hopes a little whiskey will loosen the words jammed up in his head, because he has to call their daughter tonight, tell her what the doctor said, maybe ask her to help him figure out what Mary would want. The bartender slaps the whiskey in place in front of him. One large ice cube clanks the edge of the glass.
Grace, all the way in California, wanted to fly out right away to help with her mom, but Irv asked her to wait. “You can’t do anything the way things are now,” he told her.
“I could keep you company.”
Which was true. His life is hard and lonely right now. Work. Bedside. Work. Bedside. Laying wire in a new school in the sticks to earn money to cover hospital bills. Returning phone calls to friends asking after Mary. Repeating the same thing over and over. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
But Grace has a toddler, a baby, a job, and a husband on deployment. Irv doesn’t want her to come out here on an open ticket, uproot her kids for this weird hospital existence and risk losing her job, just so she can wait with him and feel as helpless as he does. Instead, he calls her every day with updates: “status unchanged.”
Tonight’s call will be different. Earlier when the doctor examined Mary, she wheeled toward him around the bed on the stool that’s always in the cubicle, at the right height for inputting notes onto Mary’s electronic chart.
“Mr. Sparks,” she said. “It’s time to think of what your wife would have wanted.”
“Would have?” Irv said.
“Yes. What she would have wanted if she could have made the choice.”
As if she was dead already. He glanced toward Mary, plugged into her machines, thinking it wasn’t decent to say these things in front of her.
“We can time things if you want to wait for family to join you. The process will take a few days.”
Irv lifts his glass and sniffs the fumes, takes a first bracing mouthful. If he and Grace decide Mary wouldn’t want to stay on life support, then tomorrow they’ll start to ease her off, and after that it’s only a matter of days. The Process.
If only he could remember the conversations they’d had about these things. He had avoided the topic of death. He couldn’t imagine waking up without Mary beside him each morning. But here he’s been doing it, waking up without her, for three weeks already. The next sip of whiskey burns the tightness in his throat.
Sawed-off wine bottles dangle over the bar, makeshift light fixtures, and they cast weird circles of murky light. More students pile in, plus young couples from the neighborhood, the ones buying up all the houses and redoing everything so his and Mary’s house looks shabbier by the day. The buzz of activity in the bar and the hum in his head balance out so everything around him is muffled and quiet. He doesn’t notice when a woman takes the stool next to his until the bartender claps a beer in front of her.
After the doctor left him tonight, Irv rested his hands on his knees, then became aware of them as if they were separate from himself. He raised his eyes to take in Mary. He gulped for air, found her hand under the bedsheet, coaxed her fingers to unfurl and accept his.
The machine pumping Mary’s air for her whooshed and sucked, whooshed and sucked. Until its noise became like the sea, and Irv let himself go there. Their last anniversary, their 35th, at False Cape State Park. Mary’s hand strong and soft in his. The long line where sea met sky stretching out of sight. And the waves rolling in, carrying forever on their backs.
Unlike the waves, every suck of the machine’s perfect rhythm promised to take something away that it would never bring back. The first night shift nurse shuffled in, reminding him of time ebbing away. He rose to leave like other days, ducking around her oxygen mask to kiss her cheek on his way out.
If it were him in that bed instead of her, Mary would stay all night every night, regardless of any cricked neck or cramped feet or long day of work ahead for her. She’d bring that beanbag neck pillow she bought for their flights out to see Grace wherever her husband was stationed—Gulfport, Corpus Christi, San Diego, now. She’d bring the tan and maroon afghan her Aunt Nancy crocheted for their wedding and dress this room up to look halfway like home.
But Irv wanders into a bar. Seems like everyone else in DeMarco’s came in pairs and groups. The stool next to him was the only empty space when the woman beside him arrived. Her blood-red nails with flowers at the tips clack against the counter.
“Cheers,” she says and raises her bottle in his direction. He lifts his own glass, by reflex.
She’s pretty, but not in a fashion magazine way. Her face is squared off and powerful. She might be six feet tall. She’s at least Grace’s age, or a couple years older, thirty-something. When she looks at him full on, her eyes almost knock him down. So green they remind him of phosphorescence in waves at a South Carolina beach he forgets the name of. He’s only seen eyes that color on one other person: Carmen Yancey.
“I got stood up,” the woman says. He must have been staring at her, the way her comment seems like an answer to a question he hadn’t asked. “Waited a whole hour at the pizza place and he never showed. Match-dot-fucking-com.” She drums her fingers against the beer bottle, and her chunky rings chime against the glass.
“Must be an asshole then,” he says. “Standing up a good-looking woman like you.” After long weeks of not knowing what to say, it’s strangely comforting to face a situation where words come easy. That was, he realizes now, at least part of what had felt so natural with Carmen.
“That so?” She glances at him through a fall of dark curls, and her brilliant green eyes startle him again. Like it’s Carmen herself sitting next to him, about the same age she would have been back then.
He hadn’t been looking for anything when he found her, smoking on her front porch, flowery silk bathrobe shimmering in the light that spilled through the doorway behind her. For weeks after Mary delivered their first baby, Irving Junior, stillborn in his eighth month, she balled herself into the afghan on the couch, staring at the TV, eating dry cereal out of the box, not combing her hair. Irv took to walking around the city at night to see something besides his wife disappearing a little more each day.
From her porch behind a little cloud of smoke, Carmen offered him a cigarette. He said yes. Someone who didn’t know him. Didn’t know what he’d lost and wouldn’t ask how he was doing today or if Mary was holding up all right. He wasn’t sure if he was protecting himself or Mary more, but he never told her. And he’s pretty sure she never knew.
“So you’d never pull an asshole move like that, then?” the woman says. Her eyes were like being haunted by a living thing.
“I didn’t say that. I’ve done my fair share of damage.”
The woman belts back another swig of beer. “Yeah, good-looking man like you probably broke some hearts along the way.”
Irv laughs. He minds how easy it is to laugh. Just the fleeting image of Carmen thirty years later and he lets go of everything that matters to him. Could he be that weak a man? But he’s not used to thinking of himself as good-looking, even though Mary always insisted he looked like Clint Eastwood. He never saw it. The best word he can come up with for the smoky image that looks back at him from the dirty mirror behind the bar is rugged. His hair long and silvered, his face leathery.
He wonders what Carmen saw when she looked at him. And, for that matter, if her heart broke when he stopped coming around. All it took was Mary looking up from her sadness, one time, with him standing at the door about to walk out. She asked him not to leave, and he never went to Carmen again. Never said goodbye. He’s spent thirty-odd years regretting what he’d done to Mary, but he never thought of what he might’ve done to Carmen. When a “For Rent” sign popped up in her yard, he was relieved he wouldn’t run into her somewhere and have to explain. To her or Mary.
He props an elbow on the bar, leans his face into his hand and rubs his temples.
“Headache?” the woman asks him.
“Bigger than that,” Irv says. “Much bigger.”
“Hope I’m not intruding. I’m just talking to have something to do.”
“I’m just drinking to have something to do,” Irv says, tapping his glass against the bar for a refill.
“The guy’s Match profile said he was sensitive and reliable, if you can believe that,” the woman says.
“’Loser who never shows up when he says’ probably wouldn’t get a lot of takers,” Irv says.
“Truth.” She pivots her beer bottle in his direction like tipping a hat. “How about, ‘Dickwad narcissist looking for ego-stroking and fuss-free sex.’ That sums up most of them.”
She tells him her name is Amber and that she’s been sampling dating sites for a year and a half, ever since her divorce. “At least I finally found someone to buy my Doors albums and one guy gave me a free oil change, so it hasn’t been a total loss.”
She talks and he listens. She tells him about her dog and how he sniffs out the losers. He’s been right every time. She tells him about her job managing volunteers at a senior center across town, how all the old ladies there want to fix her up with their sons or grandsons. Her steady flow of words dulls the continual loop of the doctor’s words replaying in Irv’s head. He sips his whiskey, orders a third, offers to buy her next beer.
“You’re a good listener, Irv.” She brushes her fingers against his sleeve, landing there light as a moth.
Halfway through their next drinks, more things are funny, though laughing makes Irv queasier and queasier. He needs to pay up and head out and try to make sense of all the things he has to do next, but putting them off is easier.
When Irv asks for his check, Amber asks for hers, too. “I don’t know about you,” she says, “but I’d love to keep the conversation going.” That glisten in her eyes adds extra meaning to her words. Even three whiskeys in, Irv feels himself harden. At that look. At the feel of her hand gently resting on his arm, waiting for his answer. At the possibility of touching someone who knows you’re there.
How easy it would be to fall into those green eyes one more time and stop thinking altogether. His days a steady cycle of working, then walking the mile-plus from their house, grabbing a limp, pale-looking salad from the hospital cafeteria, and joining Mary. Every day for the better part of three weeks. Forking in a leaf of iceberg. A cherry tomato. A carrot shaving. Forcing himself to chew. While the doctors, different ones each night, start in with their questions. “Mary, can you lift your left foot for me?” Waiting, to give Mary a chance. Repeating the same questions with the right foot. Each of her hands. Asking her to open her eyes. Night after night after night.
All his salads, all the walking. Helpless acts meant to tally up and earn Mary’s eyes opening again. How long had she been coaxing him to eat more vegetables? Steaming, roasting, chopping. Adding carrots, peppers, turnips into stews and chili. And how many nights had he come up with excuses instead of walking with her around the neighborhood? “It’s good for your heart,” she said, an irony that tastes like bile in his throat now. Her nightgown hangs on its peg on their bathroom door, making a promise it can’t keep, and every night Irv stretches into their bedsheets, his toes reaching instinctively for the warmth of Mary’s legs and finding nothing.
“Lord Christ,” he blurts. “I can’t do that, Amber.”
“No, it’s not you. I didn’t mean to sound like that. At least let me treat.” He slides his empty glass away and pulls out his wallet, paging a few bills onto the counter. “Trust me. You don’t want to get mixed up with me right now.”
“You know what I want now?” Amber says.
“I’m pretty sure I know what you don’t want.”
“So tell me, Irving. What is it I don’t want?”
“For one thing, I could be your dad,” he says, even though, with the good-time feeling drained form her face, Amber looks at least ten years older than he’d guessed. No matter how many years stand between them, though, the difference translates into time he’s had to learn to do better.
“You’re worried about your age? You look strong enough to me.”
He stands from his stool. His ass aches, his legs ache. Drinking and talking took his mind off things, but his body remembers the calls he has to make, the news he has to break, and he reels with exhaustion. He steadies his legs, using a hand on his stool for balance. “It’s possible, that’s all I’m saying.”
She lifts her beer bottle again and drains the last sip. “All you have to say is ‘No thank you,’ when a lady makes an offer. You don’t have to go drumming up some sorry excuse. What kind of asshole does that make you?”
“That’s a better question than you think it is,” Irv says. “Because what I’m doing here tonight drinking alone? Is figuring out what to say when I call my daughter in a few minutes to tell her her mom’s dying and she needs to hop on a plane with her two kids and come say goodbye.”
Amber’s face loosens. Her mouth falls slack. “Shit.”
“Two months shy of our thirty-sixth anniversary.” He squinches his eyes closed, trying to dam the tears that start falling anyway.
In the back room with the dart boards, a cheer rises. A bull’s eye. Decades he’s spent wondering if Mary would’ve loved him anyway if she’d known about Carmen, yet all that time she had loved him. And he had loved her. For this one moment, he allows himself to think that was enough. Maybe life doesn’t do bull’s eyes.
“Jesus God. Look who’s the asshole now.”
“Let’s say nobody’s the asshole,” Irv says. Amber hands him a bar napkin and he dries his cheeks with it. Blows his nose. “Nobody wants to be alone. It’s nothing but human.”
“I’ve been called worse.”
Outside, night bugs rattle and chirp and hum, filling the darkness with life. Irv still doesn’t know what to say to Grace, but his whiskeys give him courage. He dials, narrows his eyes on the moonlit sidewalk ahead of him. Halfway across the railroad overpass, Grace answers.
“Dad! It’s so late there. Is everything okay?”
She’s a mom herself now, but Irv can hear her need for her own mother in her voice. He wants to jam his thumb against the little telephone icon and cut the connection. He wants to throw the phone onto the tracks, let a train rumble over it and mash it to bits. He wants one more whiskey at the bar and the sound of voices around him saying useless things. But he has a thousand things to do, and he won’t be able to start a single one until he finishes telling her what she needs to know.
“Sweetheart,” he says, “the doctors couldn’t tell before today, but they say she won’t get better. It’s only machines keeping her alive, and that’s not what she would want.”
All it took was saying the words to make him remember. If Mary could have chosen, she told him once, she would die in her sleep in the middle of a dream of swimming in the ocean. She didn’t want anything to do with machines. He explains The Process to his daughter, promises it will be painless, and that she’ll be able to get here in time to say goodbye. He keeps his voice soft but clear, and Grace begins to cry. “I’m so sorry, Gracie.”
“Me too, Daddy,” she says. “What do we do now?”
“Just get here. I can handle everything else.”
After all, he’d done it before, years ago. While Mary mucked around the house like a ghost of herself, Irv had called the funeral home, had met with the undertaker, had chosen their smallest casket. She insisted they buy plots for themselves beside the baby’s. “We can’t leave him alone in the graveyard forever,” she said, her fingers latching onto Irv’s wrist. “Promise me.” So she has a place to rest.
The house smells stale, like something rotting in the garbage. He ignores dirty dishes in the sink, the pile of bills on the counter, newspapers he never unrolled. He showers, shaves, puts on a comfortable striped polo and a fresh pair of jeans. He grabs a duffel bag from behind the washing machine. It might’ve been Grace’s from when she ran track. Aunt Nancy’s afghan fits in snugly, and so does the airline pillow, his slippers. He throws in Mary’s old address book for contact information that’s not in his phone, and he rustles through her drawer in the bathroom to find her favorite lipstick, her mother-of-pearl handled comb.
He’ll need his car, so he drives the short distance back. Parks in the garage, ghostly empty at this time of night. Slings the duffel strap over his shoulder and ambles toward the soft glow of the hospital.
The doors whoosh open, but he hovers at the threshold, unable to step forward. The strange hospital sound-mix of hush and rush lies just beyond the night air. A janitor wheeling out a trash barrel snakes around him. A security guard leaves his post inside and, curious, heads his way. Finally, Irv steps away from the doorway and sits down on a bench just outside it.
He wants to be a good man who does the right things. He wants to get back inside, march into that elevator, and stride down the hallway to ICU, push the chair up next to Mary’s bed, and hold her hand the whole night through. He wants to tuck Aunt Nancy’s afghan around her, comb her hair with the mother-of-pearl comb, figure out how to put her lipstick on for her. He wants her to look nice for Gracie.
For now though, he tilts his head toward the night sky, lost in the blur of hospital lights, then closes his eyes and sees himself with Mary, walking down that False Cape beach. Wisps of her white hair waving like sea froth on the air. Her smile, slightly bigger on the right side than the left, always seeming to share a joke only with him. He breathes deep and slow, and he can hear the shush-shush of the waves, the now-and-then screech of gulls. He can smell the salt in the air, feel its silt against his skin, and most of all he can feel Mary’s hand clasping his, hot with life, and the sun warming their faces. Head pitched back and eyes still closed, he holds that memory of her hand, just a little longer.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review, Arts & Letters, CRAFT, The North American Review’s Open Space column, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus, Gargoyle, Raleigh Review, [PANK], South 85 and elsewhere. She teaches at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia.