by Melissa Benton Barker
Melissa Benton Barker's fiction can be found in Vestal Review, Jellyfish Review, Bird's Thumb, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio with her family.
My Parents Grow Old Together
My father went to the hospital to have his heart taken out. It wasn’t too difficult, not with a whole team of nurses and surgeons. They knew what they were doing, how to saw through a sternum, how to crank open a ribcage and remove the specimen, my father’s heart dark and slick and pulsing in the surgeon’s latex palm. The surgeon held the heart up to the light as if it were an offering. Shining and writhing in all its darkness, my father’s heart was right where it wanted to be. My father’s heart did not long to go home.
The surgeon brought the heart to his own chest and cradled it, whispering and comforting while the others did their suctioning. Those doctors and nurses were busy janitors, scraping and suctioning. My father had ordered up a move-out job, a kind of clean-up that had never been done before. I guess no one had ever turned my father inside out the way he did his daughters, no one had ever really tried to empty him. Under the bright light, my father breathed heartless and magic like a cage that is empty of an animal, and his heart took on a longing for the doctor, because no one had ever held it quite like that, so quiet, so tender. But when the heart tried to speak its longing, blood spattered and made a mess out of the situation. No one understood its language. Over the years, my father’s heart had found its own way of speaking, having been so long alone, locked up inside a ribcage with no one to talk to but a pair of lungs who had always been poor conversationalists. Those lungs had grown shadowy with misuse and besides, they had only ever really been interested in each other.
That’s why, mid-sentence, my father’s heart was interrupted, tucked in like a fussy baby, folded into viscera, bone soldered and skin sewn up, an angry railroad track of a scar to mark the spot of escape, like a relic or a warning. My father’s heart never finished a thought but there beneath his ribs it thumps and rattles like a Frankenstein, or a prisoner.
My mother says that’s what he gets after a life spent making sport out of love, the way he was always looking away from his own wreckage and bandying about without her. Now there he goes, for the rest of his life, a job half-done, an open wound. But I know it’s not his fault. My father is nothing if not a gnawing, an ache never quelled from a time when he was more of a hunger than a man.
If only my mother had seen my father’s heart the way the surgeon did. It would have surprised her. She would have found it so much more complicated than she’d expected, the way it turned blue from black and also back to red again. The way it beat with blood despite the ways it had been beaten. My father’s heart was a survivor: marbled, congealed, shellacked, encased by the life it had lived inside of him. It was a risky heart, a hungry heart, some would say a bad heart, made ugly by the damage of all that it had wanted and hadn’t got. But my mother wasn’t there to see the heart. She stayed home. My father’s heart, on the outside, was on its own.
My mother’s problems are different. She takes pills for her pain. Numbness is her specialty. She spent too much time on her knees all her life and now she says there will be no more bending. You see, after all these years, my parents are still married. They share a home: dogs, rugs, and teacups. They say they’re just getting warmed up. They say marriage is a real commitment. They say they’ll take it to the grave.