Issue 12

Haystack Heart

 · Fiction

Rather than meet in a restaurant, Andrea and her friend decided to get some exercise by walking through the park, on the path above the river. The June day was bright, though humid enough to fall short of perfection. Andrea glimpsed the glittering river every now and then through the fully-leafed trees — oaks, maples, and the threads of weeping willows — but on the high bank and with the screen of trees, she could not hear its rush. Here there was no danger of flooding, of mudslide. No danger, she told herself. Just beautiful, proud, self-contained brick houses on the far side of the park, watching over its gliding river. “I need to start taking better care of myself,” she said to Caroline and pumped her arms as if to loosen something that clogged her chest. “At least I don’t smoke.” She had two Baby Ruth bars in her pants pocket. “I should lose some weight.” The sky looked heavy and close, but even if it rained, it was summer, and they would only get warmly wet.
She was out of breath and felt her underarms perspiring, but when she looked at Caroline, she thought the exertion made Caroline’s skin glow and emphasized her perfect posture.
Caroline stopped, adjusted her fanny pack, then raised her wrist to her nose and sniffed the rose-scented perfume she’d said Harry had given her. “I was like those bristly heaps of grass, raked into what do you call ‘em? — Haystacks? Hayricks–-all dry at the center. And then I met Harry.” She shut her eyes, as if to enclose the happy memory. Short strands of gray-blond hair flicked out from under her sunshade. “And I bloomed.” She patted her hips. “I was a witch and, presto, I’m a princess.” She snapped her fingers. “Every day is my birthday.” She looked off to the distant arch of deep green trees, darkly shadowed in the center, and squinted. “I hardly think about Eric anymore. Imagine that. Now I want to get married.”
“I think everyone should get married,” Andrea said, breathing out loudly the way she was taught in her yoga class. “If you have a stroke or heart attack, there’s someone to give you aspirin.” Perhaps that came out too medicinal.
“I want to hold on to him forever.” Caroline crossed her arms as if hugging an invisible Harry.

“I knew someone who almost choked on a walnut,” Andrea said. “His wife drove him to the hospital.”

“What happened?”

“They’re still married.”

“At the hospital. What happened at the hospital?”

“Oh. The doctor anesthetized him and put a fiber-optic scope into his nose and down to his bronchial tube, where the nut was lodged. He had to cut it into smaller bits to get it out. The scope had tiny nippers on the end. The doctor did it by watching it on a screen. Later he told the man’s wife about it. He was real matter-of-fact.”
Caroline put her hands to her throat and chest and stopped. They were beside a smooth, gray, shoulder-high boulder left by glaciers thousands of years earlier. “I know that there are mice in haystacks. I know that haystacks burn or get soaked in flood water. But not this one. This haystack heart is kept safe by love.” She looked sheepishly at Andrea. “Haystack heart.” She patted her chest. “It sounds like a country song.”

“I’m happy for you and Harry,” Andrea said. She smelled the wetness in the air. “You’re a great couple.” They passed a spot where the trees opened up to the river, and it shimmered in changing flakes of light.

“At the end, when Eric was packing his stuff, he said to me, ‘That’s who you are.’ It was a cruel thing to say.” Caroline looked stiffly ahead. “I understood what he meant.” She sliced the air with her hand as if dividing a country. “We argued about the best route to the museum, about staying too late at a party, about his mother’s will, about leaving the porch light on. That’s who I was… am.” 

“Well… " Andrea let her head drop. “That was hard. But now your Harry is truly wonderful.” Caroline seemed to revive and pumped her arms vigorously. Andrea heard a bird call and scanned the trees but could not see a movement. She felt winded. “Are you out of breath? I’m panting like a dog.” Her wrist and brow hurt, from where she had fallen on a rainy sidewalk last month. She had been running in the downpour and slipped and twisted to hold her arm in front of her but hit the sidewalk with her forehead. She had joked that she cracked the pavement. She meant to make people laugh but their faces contracted at the sight of the big plum-colored bruise on her brow and cheek. Then it faded to green and yellow and finally to a dirty cream stain in the shape of a kite. “How does my face look, my black-and-blue mark?”

“It’s fine. You look fine. Only a bit of discoloration. Almost like peach-colored rouge.”

And now, when she stared at Caroline pumping her arms and humming, the weak sun glinting across her unnecessary sunhat, the taste in Andrea’s mouth was sour. Caroline was actually humming as her rose-scented perfume wafted around her. Andrea coughed and brought up phlegm. She took in a sharp breath. She felt a clot of guilt. Caroline deserved happiness. She had married the wonderful Eric and gotten divorced from him, had a worthwhile job at the ad agency, volunteered at the animal shelter; and finally she had met Harry — also divorced, funny, smart, with two grown children. Caroline deserved her beauty and good health and certainly a good man, another good man. 
So: what weighed on Andrea’s mind? Why was she envious? She had a beautiful daughter, a wonderful husband, a solid job at the Arts Board. What scratched at her heart? Caroline’s happiness did not subtract from hers, it was not a zero-sum game. If Caroline were not successful, it would not bring Andrea more joy. Schadenfreude was twice damned: it gave pain to the sender and to the receiver. She did not like to think of herself as being so vinegar-hearted. She was disappointed in herself. It was a sludgy feeling, like the hairy clump found in the drain pipe of her kitchen sink.
She would try to work on that feeling of envy. Caroline had been babbling on about a wedding, how she wanted a small, unpretentious ceremony, with a few friends, and in a church — she was glad she had gotten an annulment from Eric, so she could marry in a church and not in front of a justice of the peace as with Eric. With Harry, life would be smooth, harmonious, prosperous, and with no fights nor disagreements. Andrea shook her head at her deluded friend and her aspirations. But we all needed our delusions: that we would have a perfect marriage, loving children to take care of us in our old age, peace and health and happiness. And all of these forever.
But there were jolts along the way. People got divorced, friends became ill, relatives fought, parents died… children died. The rain fell on the just and unjust alike. Caroline seemed not to know this. Surely she was smart and perceptive enough to know this. Surely, with all the troubles she had endured — her father abandoning the family, a friend’s suicide, and the smaller things, loss of job, lack of promotion, house problems — she knew this.
A crow, its wings black as deep space, swooped down on the path and took off again. Searching for food? Enjoying its power?
A teenager on a skateboard cruised past them, singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” though it was mid-afternoon. This wasn’t today’s hip-hop music. He wasn’t wearing nerd glasses. He had beautiful snaky dreadlocks and a t-shirt with fluffy clouds floating against a cerulean blue background. Maybe he was rehearsing for a high school play. Maybe he was overflowing with good emotion — in love, in success, in good health. Her Jamie had had a t-shirt that color; he would’ve been twice the age of the boy on the skateboard, would’ve been married and starting a family and ecstatically happy… She had to stop or she would be mired, perhaps buried, in despair; she’d been so lucky to escape, when Alan had pulled her out of the sludge, and their daughter Cassie had kept her going.
Caroline paused and bent down to retie her shoelaces. Andrea watched the boy on the skateboard ride back toward them again. He touched the bill of his baseball cap and nodded at them as if he were a gentleman from a polite and antique era, and Caroline returned his greeting, saluting him, graceful and playful as he pushed away, disappearing around the boulder.
“I heard a joke at the office,” Andrea said.
“I wish I could remember jokes.” Caroline brushed a strand of hair away from her forehead.
“Sven signs up and pays for the twenty-five dollar three-day Great Lakes cruise, but when he goes to the dock to look for the ship, the next thing he knows he’s floating in Lake Superior in an inner tube with a big bump on his head. Anyway, after a day he sees another guy floating nearby in an inner tube. Turns out it’s Ole. Sven calls out, ‘You on the twenty-five dollar three-day Great Lakes cruise?’ and Ole shouts, ‘Ya sure.’ Sven says, ‘Ya know, I’m getting pretty hungry. Do they feed ya on dis here cruise?’ Ole pats the bruise on his forehead and says, ‘Vell, they didn’t last year.’”
Andrea touched her brow. “I like that one because of the bump on the head.” Her brow didn’t actually hurt anymore.
Caroline let out a hiccuppy laugh. “We never learn.” Her eyes gleamed in her vivid face. “I’m so in love. What will happen when this leaves me?”
“It may not leave you.” Andrea scolded herself silently for misspeaking. “I mean, don’t talk like that. It most definitely will not leave you.”
“Of course. And I’m enjoying it so much now.” Caroline lowered her head. Her voice became small and melancholy. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Out of the way,” another teenager shouted in back of them, loud and growling, and startled Andrea. “One side, hags.” Laughing, he pedaled past on his bicycle. He had short blond hair and a scornful mouth. He flipped them off.
“Jerk,” Andrea said under her breath. Here she was, thinking of herself as entering the stage of a wise crone, and he had called them hags. Perhaps he was right; perhaps she had exaggerated her own importance, her own wisdom.
Caroline waved lightly at him, but he was already yards past them and he didn’t turn around. “I know that teenagers and hipsters look at me and see an old lady.” She raised her arms to the sky as if she were at the top of a roller coaster. “I feel like a kid. I’m younger than them. Whee — Gene Kelly move over. I could dance in the rain.” She hopped forward.
Andrea stared at Caroline, her kind, annoying, big-hearted, and deservingly joyful and hopeful friend.

Off to their left, in the trees and bushes leaning toward the river, the light wavered through the leaves, shadows resting in the edges. Just ahead, near a wide-trunked oak tree, a mother strolled toward them holding the hand of her young son toddling beside her. Andrea’s heart dropped. She didn’t always react to children this way, not recently, at least. Even grief was finite. She still had her daughter, she had told herself when Jamie died. What strange mathematics. Not really satisfying. For a long time she dreaded that Cassie too would be taken away. And then Cassie grew up and got engaged and would someday have children of her own. Andrea breathed out.
Now they had walked to the old oak with its roots visible above ground, where the soil had washed away. The air was more humid; soon it would rain.
“I named that tree Eric.” Caroline pointed to the old oak tree, and her fingers grazed the rough trunk, as if she were reading Braille. She swung her hand downward. “For its snaky roots.”
“Well.” Andrea stepped over the root in the path. Bulbous and thick, it could make you trip and fall.
The young mother approached them slowly. She smiled but looked tired, shoulders drooping. Her little boy sneezed and the mother bent down and pulled a tissue out of her pocket. After she wiped the child’s nose, she rummaged in her purse, brought out an apple, and offered it to him. 
Andrea had loved being a young mother, but she didn’t want to do it again. That was the definition of happiness, she supposed: to have enjoyed doing something and been so fulfilled that you didn’t need it again. “I remember a time when Jamie brought me an apple. I had a migraine, and Jamie ran into the kitchen and brought me a perfect Braeburn. It was autumn. ‘This is your favorite,’ he said, and grinned and pretended to polish his fingernails. ‘Second favorite. Next to me.’ I remember his jokes.”
“Great kid.” Caroline sighed and smiled at the retreating mother and child. “What a great kid he was.”
The river flashed with light. The wind rustled the leaves. The wet air wanted to touch them.
An old man in a khaki rain hat shuffled toward them. He wore plaid Bermuda shorts and held the leash of a yellow lab puppy trotting happily beside him. Why did he have a puppy? Optimistic about the years he had left?
“Halt,” he said. “Halt, Mr. Lemon.” The puppy stretched against his leash, sniffed the blades of grass, and strained to run off the path. The old man held the leash against his puffing chest. The puppy lurched forward, slipped away, and ran with his leash trailing behind. He stopped by the oak, sniffed around the base, lifted his head, sniffed the air, and then trotted toward the two of them. Caroline picked up the leash, and Andrea bent down and petted him — he felt all muscle and quivering warmth under her hand. The old man shambled toward them, wheezing. “Thank you. My grandson loves this puppy. So do I.”
Caroline, smiling, handed the leash to him, and he beamed as if he’d been awarded a knighthood. She had that effect on strangers, Andrea thought, and on friends too. The old man tottered away.
One of Andrea’s favorite teachers wore a hat like that: Mr. Beymer, who taught her Shakespeare in college. Years later, she wanted to go back and thank him but learned that he had died. And then there was Mr. Kaska; she supposed — hoped — he was still alive. She should write him a thank you. She would do so tomorrow. They were all in her heart, even if they died. People always said that — you continued to live in someone else’s memory. As if you moved into another house. Poor consolation, she thought. It wasn’t you who moved in, just a photograph of you, a pencil sketch on a wrinkled piece of paper, a cartoon perhaps.
The same rude boy who had shouted at them from his bicycle hurtled past them toward the oak tree in back of them. Andrea turned to look at him. Would he flip her the finger again? His upper body curved over the handlebars, and he pedaled furiously. Beside her, Caroline hummed an unrecognizable tune. The air smelled green and wet. Light flashed in Andrea’s eyes. The boy swerved, dipped, flew up.
The image returned to her: a sweet and funny boy on a bicycle, moving his legs with glee, eyes open and dark with joy as he turned his head back to say something to his sister and… and. But the rude boy didn’t ride into a car. There was no car. He bumped over a tree root. She saw him jump off his bicycle, away from it, so it could not fall on him. The bicycle clattered to the ground. He shook his hands free. He dropped to the ground, then knelt there, panting. 
Her heart went back to its regular beating.
They ran to the boy. He stood and stared at his bike, nodding, probably thinking about the bent wheel. He scratched his head. He whistled softly.
Andrea wanted to hold him in her arms. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said in a low voice, newly vulnerable.
Caroline pulled out her phone. “Should we call someone?”
“I’m okay,” he said softly. “Thank you.” He smiled to show he was fine. He patted the crushed leaves and dirt off his knees. He squatted down, picked up the bike by the handlebars, tested the front wheel, and set it moving. He walked beside it, standing straight, not limping.
Caroline looked up at the sky, where a drizzle was starting. She blinked, took off her sunshade. “I don’t need this now.” She wiped at her glistening brow with her forearm. “Kids.”
The boy walked his bicycle away.
The air felt wet to Andrea; the cloth of her capri pants stuck to her thighs; her pockets dragged heavily. “We should go back.” A fine mist coated her face. The drizzle seemed to be inside her and outside her.
“I love the rain!” Caroline opened her arms and sang with gusto, “My haystack heart… ” She sang loudly, as if they were in a stadium and this was the national anthem. “My haystack heart… it burns for you… it burns for me.” She laughed. “Terrible lyrics. I’m no Johnny Cash.”
The light rain settled on them. Suddenly, it felt delicious: connecting everything — warm, full, expansive. Andrea had thought there were clots in her core, but she was being melancholy and dramatic. If there were clots, the rain would wash them away, loosen them and clean them and unknot them, return them to their original elements, and let them be foundation for the next stage.
Andrea looked at her friend. The mist rested around her, and she was beautiful and kind. Yes, she deserved all good things. Caroline brushed at her brow. “Oh,” she said, “I remembered a joke.”

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