A heart, harvested in your hand, is like nothing else—not a fist, mango, breast, balls, engine, man-o-war, hunk of clay. It’s nothing like a stunned bird.
The phone rings me awake and I’m glad to see the glowing number is not my brother’s. When our dad was having heart trouble, Josh was the one calling me in the wee hours, and ever since then I’ve been phone-jumpy, trained to brace for bad news. And I love my brother, but he calls at inhumane hours—too early, too late, or worst, when I’m “in process.” Say I’ve picked up a load of copper wire, tubing, some colored glass. The soldering iron’s hot and I just stubbed out a fatty. My sketches are all around me; I am prepared to actualize the vision. Ring. It’s Josh, calling to talk, he says, about some hard case that walked into his office that day, poor, molested, uninsured. Buzzkill. Goodbye copper wire crocodile.
“All we’ve got is each other, brother,” he tells me.
Sometimes I want to say, “Get more.”
But it isn’t Josh this morning; it’s the school district’s substitute coordinator. Somebody must have taken a long weekend. I have no solid plans, so I take her call.
“Mr. Gull? This is Paulette calling from—”
“Hi, Paulette. It’s David.”
“Yes, Mr. Gull, calling from Arapataw County Schools to ask—”
“To ask me out, finally? A cup of coffee, a piece of cake? Dinner and a movie? But if it’s just work for me, that’s all right, too. I’ll take a raincheck.” All I know about the woman is her voice, morning-soft, not likely a smoker. Everything else, I re-construe each time she calls. Today, she’s a wheatberry brunette, older than me, mid-thirties, sitting at her kitchen table in a baby blue robe, running her finger down a list of numbers.
“They need an extra set of hands at the Middle School today, so you’d be rotating,” she tells me. She sticks to script. I take the job.
For breakfast, I toast a chunk of bread and scramble three eggs. They used to say eggs were cardiovascular suicide, but all that’s changed. The farmer I buy from feeds his hens flaxseed so their eggs are full of omega-3, great for the ticker.
After breakfast I load a bong and clear it before hitting the shower. Look, most people in this country wake up and take a fistful of pills. I partake of the herb, clean grown by my own two hands, nature’s antidepressant. And that’s what I tell Josh when one pill or another quits working for him. Go green, I say, but he’s so hung up on the law. Since Dad died, he says he feels like a full-grown orphan. I tell him there’s no such thing.
I decide against shaving a few days’ worth of stubble, thinking it makes me look older. Half the time, people mistake me for some kind of schoolboy. I put on a green linen shirt with wooden buttons, no tie, dark brown khakis, tuck my pant leg into my sock and bike the eight miles to the middle school.
“Paulette didn’t tell you?” The secretary laughs like she’s in on some joke, her hammy arms shaking like a shocked hog. “It’s cardiovascular health day, Gull—hearts and lungs and whatnot. You’re assisting the guest speaker. Aren’t you lucky? Start in Room Three.”
I like the rotating gigs. I’m not trying to be some kind of classroom teacher, thirty years eating packed lunches in a lounge, but for temp work, the pay and the hours are decent. Sell a little herb, teach a little school, and plenty of days for sculpting. But today, I don’t know what to expect, maybe posters of the lung, transparencies of the heart, maps of blood vessels branching out to nets of violet capillaries like river to delta. I head to Room Three, wading through students stirring in the hallway like platelets in a vein.
When I was a kid, an officer from the Navy hospital where Dad worked came to our school with a square-headed robot that sat on the teacher’s desk and smoked a cigarette. When it was down to the butt, they pulled out the filter sacs that were the robot’s now-brown lungs. They let us sniff them; some of us gagged. Try getting away with something like that these days.
Near the dry-erase board in Room Three, a pillowy middle-aged woman in a white coat stoops over Rubbermaid bins. “You must be Mr. Gull,” she says, standing and waving a bloody latex-gloved hand. “I’m Doctor Abbot. I’m just sorting the organs into the three different bins. We’ll start in this classroom and then rotate, transporting the organs between rooms and trading them out for fresh ones if they get dry or begin to express an odor.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Everything is clean, straight from the butcher. There are cow arteries, pig lungs and sheep hearts, all just like our own. You can help me separate them now and get the first set of lungs onto the cart. They’re still bleeding out a bit. Just think of it as meat and you’ll be fine.”
“But I don’t eat meat.”
Dad always said he wished one of us had gone into medicine instead of, as he called it “nose wiping, nannying and turning crap into crap,” but Josh faints at the sight of blood or the appearance of a needle. I’m not that squeamish. Even so, my own heart trips over itself when I lift the lid of the bin and see the pink lungs slumped inside, trachea running up the corner. Lightheaded, I second-guess the morning’s wake-and-bake. I’ve got to maintain composure in front of a couple hundred adolescents, got to stay cool. Maybe I should have smoked more. Yeah, I probably should have smoked more.
The bell rings and the children of Room Three flow in. They know it’s not an ordinary day so cannot settle; instead they clot around me asking questions while I repeat “sit down,” and “wait and see.”
“You look like a plant or something, Gull.” A dim boy, big because he’s a year older than his classmates, has decided that he likes me, and he shows it by throwing me bullshit.
“Right on, Darby,” I say, hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind being a plant on a day like today, springtime, sun shining after a night of rain.”
“What kind of plant would you be?” another kid asks.
Cannabis, no doubt. But I answer: “I’d be a huge sunflower, the tallest one in the state of Kansas.”
“Figures you’d be a flower, Gull.”
“Yeah. And you’d be a walnut tree. Not too big around, real tall, with great, shading arms, best friend to squirrels and to an old man who sits underneath you reading the news.”
“Like I want some old geezer sitting around my yard.”
“Then maybe this geezer, he gets tired of picking up walnuts so he decides to cut down his walnut tree. And he hires a sculptor to chop and uproot the menace. The sculptor makes himself a sturdy chair.” Students are tuned in now, and they find their seats, listening. “And Sara would be a cornstalk because her hair is fine like corn silk. Matt would be a twisty grapevine. Lisa would be a willow tree —”
“Mr. Gull,” the doctor interrupts, “shall we get started?”
Doctor Abbot uses overhead transparencies to illustrate the differences between arteries and veins while I walk the aisles holding a cow’s blood vessels out to the students as if displaying fine fabric. My sleeves are pushed up and the vessels are draped over my forearms. Kids recoil, fake-wretch, hold their noses, and I have to remain unflappable, though the reddening of my gloves and arms has got me sweating. Warmed up, I suppose, for the demonstration of the lung. Doctor Abbot makes me lift a set of pig lungs from the bin to the cart where I lay them on freezer paper, bravely straightening the trachea and esophagus. The kids leave their seats and rush forward, the wicked and curious drawing closest. “Does it stink, Gull?”
“Mr. Gull, please,” Doctor Abbot interjects.
“Nope. Not at all. It’s all very fresh.” It smells like wet, rusted iron.
“In fact, these lungs were harvested this morning,” Doctor Abbot mentions. “I want everyone to take a few deep breaths and focus on your chest.”
She inserts a rubber tube into the trachea and instructs me to blow into it. The lungs inflate like balloons and slowly detumesce. She takes a scalpel and cuts into the dense, spongy tissue, which turns from peach to red at the incision, showing that the pulmonary capillaries hold a lot of blood. To demonstrate the toughness of the trachea, she cuts into it with great difficulty. She hands me a jumbo marble to feed into the esophagus, and asks me to choose a volunteer to knead it down and out of its severed, opposite end. No hands go up and the students all step back. “I’ll do it,” Elizabeth concedes, and she forces the marble through the limp esophagus gently, holding her breath. A boy says he’s going to be sick. I ask for a volunteer to walk him to the office. Elizabeth insists.
And I remember escorting Josh to the infirmary at the military summer camps we were sentenced to as boys. Sun and grass would give him rashes, lunch and exercise made him puke. He’s about as coordinated as a drunken goose, so he was always getting hurt and leaving a game. He’d cry on the walk to the infirmary and I wouldn’t say a word, just walked beside him whipping a piece of grass and looking for shapes in the clouds. I sensed that I should be ashamed of him, but I was only ashamed of myself because I was always glad that whatever stupid game we’d been playing was over for us. I hated the Navy brats and I wished I could give Josh a little of my speed and crackshot aim; I wasn’t interested in using them, even though I know Dad would have liked nothing better than having a blue-ribbon winner for a son. And anyway, it was cooler in the infirmary where Becky the nurse drank cup after cup of chamomile tea. In the afternoon, Becky would shake out her hair and say, “You can draw me now if you want to, sweetie. Make me look like a movie star and I’ll kiss it and sign it for you.”
The students return to their seats and Doctor Abbot calls me to the corner where she plucks two sheep’s hearts from the layers of denuded, stilled organs in the third bin. She passes them to me like she’s handing me two halves of a sandwich.
“Give a heart to any student interested in exploring it, Mr. Gull, and keep one for yourself so you can co-conduct the demonstration.
“When we look at this sheep’s heart,” Doctor Abbot begins, “I want you all to think about your own heart. Yours is exactly the same shape and size as this one, and they share exactly the same parts, the same structure.”
And I think not about my own heart, but about Dad’s. He was a doctor who’d spent his whole life military-fit, rarely drank, never smoked, and still, his heart failed him by fifty. Hell, growing up, I doubted that he even had a heart in that boxy chest; he seemed more machine than animal. But what did I know then, what do I know now, what could I ever know about raising two boys alone?
The sheep’s heart fills my whole hand. It’s dense, thick-walled, maroon and shiny. There are small patches of fat on the outside like patches of snow left in shady places, but it’s firm, yellow fat like overboiled yolk. The thing is heavy, the prospect of dissecting it horrific. Doctor Abbot gives one kid, who has refused the offered organ, a tennis ball instead and tells him to squeeze it sixty times.
“Isn’t it hard?” she says, “I bet you can’t even do it sixty times. Yet, that’s the force your heart must exert with each beat—just like you’re squeezing that ball—and it never stops to rest during your whole life. Aren’t your arms tired? If your heart gets tired, you die, boys and girls. That’s why you have to take care of your heart, so it can remain strong and function properly.”
Josh had come home from China and was living with Dad when the first heart attack struck. He called me in the middle of the night, crying, said he’d heard a crash in the bathroom, found Dad on the floor and called 911. Before they wheeled Dad into pre-op, he told us he loved us too, that we’d been good sons, and he’d only ever wanted to make us strong men.
Josh said, “I’m not a strong man. I need him.”
“He’ll be fine. It’s routine these days,” I said. “He’s fit as an elk, except for those couple of vessels. Except for the blockages.”
“I need a cigarette,” he said.
“You’re smoking cigarettes now? God, Josh, that’s pretty fucking bright.” But we pushed through the glass doors and crossed the parking lot to my truck, sat in the cab listening to Allman Brothers while he smoked two Merits and I toked away the tightness in my throat.
Seven hours later, Dad was in recovery. Pain bullied though his morphine, made him mean. I told Josh we should go and let him rest, but suddenly, a drop in blood pressure. A suture had broken loose in a bypass and blood was pooling. He had to go back in. He hadn’t the breath to curse the surgeon’s incompetence but managed to say, “Just like my boys. Bleeding heart.”
Back in the solarium, Josh ate two tranquilizers and started talking, talked while he paced, cried, switched the TV on and off again, talked and hummed, anything to make his maddening noise. I grabbed a deck and started playing solitaire, all the while in my head I was screaming, shut up, Josh. Shut up. If there is a god, please God, make him shut up.
He was saying, “Remember when he left us alone for the first time, went to Vegas with a couple of guys, and you and me, we stayed out past midnight riding our bikes around the lots until we got scared and we rode home and lay down on the lawn, looking at the stars and the dark line of mountains? I was twelve, I think, and you were eleven. Does that sound right, Dave?”
“I guess.” But I was thinking, what if my own heart’s the same? What have I inherited from that man? What if my own heart’s the same?
“And when we went inside to bed, we locked the doors but we were still afraid because he wasn’t there. I think we spooked each other talking about cougars. We weren’t brave on our own, brother. You slept on my floor in your sleeping bag. I watched you sleep and I thought, I bet after this weekend we won’t fight anymore. And when we woke up, we got back on our bikes and rode to the Falls Trail. Remember?”
“Yes, Josh. Christ, I said I remember.”
“And we’d left the garage door open the night before and all day and when we came back a pair of barn swallows had begun to make a nest on one of the cross beams. All day, we watched those birds swoop into the garage with beaks full of mud, drop by drop, building that nest in a just day and a half. Dad came home on Sunday and we were so excited to show him the bird nest, but he was pissed. The birds were resting in it, so he left the door open again and parked in the driveway overnight.
“And I had to go to summer school the next day because I’d failed math, remember? But you stayed home, and when he got on a ladder with a broom and shooed the swallows out, he made you shut the door behind them. And when he clubbed the nest down with his driver, he made you clean up the pieces and doing so you saw the smashed eggs in the dirt. When I got home that day and looked for the birds, he told me what you two had done, and I threw up. He told me you guys took care of it together, so I was mad at you too. But when I came to your room and asked how could you, you looked like you would cry too, and then I knew I couldn’t blame you. I’d never seen you cry and I thought you would cry then, but you didn’t. Dad said if you can’t speak, then you can’t eat, so you didn’t eat. He screamed a lot, but it didn’t do any good, so he sat us down. He told us the birds would be fine, that they had no feelings, only a survival urge, an urge to reproduce, which would recur and probably already had.
“You got up from the table and ran to the garage. I figured you were going to do something to his Jeep, and he probably did too because he cussed and followed you. But you just stood there watching the Plexiglas panes in the garage door. The birds were flinging themselves against it, trying to get back in. You sat beside each other on the Jeep’s bumper and neither of you said a word. I couldn’t stay there and listen to them battering themselves like that. There was blood and feathers stuck to every pane.”
A nurse came in to the hospital waiting room to stick new magazines into the rack and I hated her for it. I hated her for brewing coffee that tasted like rust at a time like this, and I hated her for restocking the non-dairy creamer. Josh, talking mainly to himself now, moaned, “How much can a heart take?” and I fantasized about punching him square in the face, over and over again, until he’d become still and silent. It was three more hours before we knew that Dad pulled through.
“Now push your finger through the aorta down into the ventricle and feel around in there,” Doctor Abbot asked me, and the heart-holding middle-schoolers. “Run your finger along the tissue ridges and you will discover some connective tissue, like strings, within. You can literally tug at its heart strings!” she laughed. Perverse. And I wasn’t going to do it, but she said, “Go ahead, Mr. Gull. Index finger, right through the valve up top.”
The second heart attack struck one morning at the Officer’s Club. He needed an aortic valve replacement. After surgery, he said he felt like he was thirty again. Josh and I went over on Sundays and shot hoops with him in his driveway. He’d throw his hip into Josh and box him out, saying, “Goddamn, you’re slower than David here, and he’s a bark-eating hophead.” That’s when I’d steal it, push past him and slam it in. Turning back while Josh chased after the ball, I’d catch the old man chin up, measuring me as he would some recruit who’d finally made rank, his hard mouth almost smiling.
Three months after the surgery, the aorta ruptured while he was out shooting hoops alone at dusk. His neighbor found him on the driveway in the morning, covered him up with a blanket, and phoned Josh. Josh called me. When I got there, Josh was sitting beside the covered body, holding Dad’s hand. It was sunny and they were obscenely well lit. I fled indoors and called an ambulance.
“Wrap your finger around that string when you feel it,” Doctor Abbot said. “Go ahead, pull it with all your might. You can’t break it, can you? That’s how strong your heart is! Now remember – this heart, even though it’s a sheep’s heart, is just like yours. ”
Room Three is humming, shifting; children’s voices fuse and warp with the doctor’s. I breathe and breathe the suddenly-too-thin air as my eyesight goes black from the periphery inward. My skin is cold and wet in a flash, my loose clothes clinging, somehow constricting. I tell myself this can’t be the big one; I’m not even thirty. “If your heart gets tired, you die, boys and girls.” I’m gasping, gasping. What if my own heart’s the same? I watch the sheep’s heart fall from my hand and silently bounce across the square beige tiles. My own heart is more like a horse trying to gallop on its knees. I go down. When I open my eyes, the doctor is hovering over me. I grab her sleeve and as I fade again, I hear myself repeating, “Call my brother, please. Someone, please, call my brother.”
mary switalski’s work has appeared in The Pinch Literary Review, Copper Nickel, The Dunes Review, Obsession Lit Mag, the anthology Defying Gravity, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Grant for fiction, and teaches composition at American University.