I Found a Heart
by Dan Darling
I found a heart under one of those freeway overpasses in the bad part of town. It was a place where the bums bunked during the winter and the bats shat their guano in drifts during the summer. It was a place where the small-time drug dealers and the prostitutes and the existentially destitute outcasts like me went to have our shame rumbled over and over and over by the cycles of endless interstate traffic. It was a place with cement gray pillars that held up thousands of tons of cement and asphalt amidst colorless urban blight. I found the heart at the base of one of those pillars. The heart was gray. It lay coated in desert grit. A dead leaf stuck to the underneath of it. I picked it up and flicked the leaf away. The heart was cold and clammy and hollow.
I was a 23-year-old girl out wandering the summer streets. I was single and lonesome. I was hobbling around on one crutch, and my face was bashed up from a hit and run. I was drunk as a hyena during apple season.
I interpreted the heart as a sign, so I took it to David’s house, of course.
He opened the door and tried not to look blown away by my mangled body. He wore maroon bell-bottoms and a tan shirt with pearl buttons. A green scarf twined around his long, slender neck. He’d grown his mustache out a little since I’d seen him a couple weeks before. He had high cheekbones and when he saw me they turned red.
“Amy,” he said. “What the hell did you do to yourself?”
I hadn’t been returning his calls. I didn’t return much of anybody’s calls, but I’d been ignoring his for a special reason. I didn’t want to talk about getting hit by the judge’s son in the red convertible, so I showed him the heart.
“That’s a lamb heart,” he said, “isn’t it?”
“It’s a human heart,” I said.
He tilted his head back and a delicate smile curled his lips. “It’s an animal heart. You bought it at a butcher’s shop.”
“I found it in the street,” I said. “Human cast off. Evidence of a dying culture. Torn from the chest of a pregnant mother as her body and the body of her unborn were shredded in a terrible wreck. A life-saving organ donated by a terminal patient in a moment of ultimate generosity, only to be thrown from a moving ambulance by some misanthropic hospital tech.”
“They transport donor organs in planes or helicopters,” he said. “I saw it on ER, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Scrubs.”
I pushed the heart toward his face and he yelped. He was skittish like that.
He was on his way to a party, but I made him stay. We looked the heart up in the encyclopedia. It was a World Book with a blue cover from 1989. He had a whole set of them, volumes for every letter except for X, Y, and Z, which had to share. He was retro. He didn’t believe in the internet. He had plush chairs that he’d upholstered himself with glossy velvet. They were lost in time. He hung his walls with gold-framed mirrors and sewed his own bell-bottoms. He was a tall, olive skinned man with a wiry mustache and when he wore sunglasses he looked like he had a terrible wasting disease. He was the skinniest man I’d ever known and he was hiding in the past. He wasn’t even current enough to read Marx or Nietzsche; instead he read Fourier, who believed that all social ills could be handled by carefully orchestrated orgies. In Fourier’s utopian socialism everyone would attend orgies where they would bind every part of their body up with black cloth except for their most beautiful part so people would value them for their best attribute. I had a vision of myself clad from head to toe in black, like a planet in eclipse.
According to a picture in the World Book, the human heart was dull red like a brick that had been left out in the sun. My heart was grayer than that, but it looked like it had the same ventricles and general shape as the one in the book.
“Pigs’ hearts, lambs’ hearts,” he told me, “they look just like human hearts to the untrained eye. Doctors transplant pig valves into human hearts.”
“They should start doing the opposite,” I said. “Pigs are nobler than human scum. I’m going to donate my body to the pigs when I die.”
“I want them to throw my body in the desert,” he said. “It’ll be put to good use. It’ll be gone in a day, just like people’s memories of me.”
He was always saying self-pitying bullshit.
“Do you have anything to drink?” I asked.
He did. We sucked mouthfuls of wine straight from the bottle. We passed it back and forth while we leaned on his kitchen counter and read about hearts. They were essentially just big, hollow muscles with a bunch of tubes attached. They didn’t keep you alive. They kept the stuff keeping you alive flowing. The heart propelled blood around in an endless depressing circle. That’s all.
I took the bottle and threw myself on his couch. His studio apartment was a landslide of ukuleles, retro button-up shirts, pants with impossibly long legs, argyle socks, sewing thread, pincushions, and the kind of ancient books printed with titles in plain font and nothing else on their wooden covers. His TV’s rabbit ears protruded through a cap of melted candles. A body-shaped cavity imprinted the pile of books, newspapers, and clothes on his couch, which was also his bed, which was also the place where we’d spent June together. I hadn’t been calling him back since the incident at the Fourth of July party.
We’d done a lot of TV that June. He was on classics: I Love Lucy, All in the Family, The Andy Griffith Show—programs where the -isms sprung from the screen in naked hyperbole. We were hipsters, and over-the-top racism, sexism, and nerdism pleased us in that ironic way hipsters feel pleased. Real pain and oppression were so distant that they were kind of snark-worthy—that’s what we told ourselves. The truth is, every hipster’s a traumatized person. We’re a bunch of unpopular, ugly, fat nerds. Only we’re no longer unpopular, fat, nerdy, or ugly. We get rid of those things, but we keep the shame. It’s part of us, like a dark organ we hide away among our wicked inner recesses.
That summer I was neck deep in my own ugliness. David’s favorite show was Leave it to Beaver, a show that I hated because every beautiful person in it was good, and all ugly people were evil. As an ugly girl with hair in all the wrong places and a strange face and small breasts and legs like a caber tosser.. I also hated almost every visual print medium. I’d been hooked on Holocaust movies. The ones where the most terrible shit you can ever imagine takes place in moving life and sound. It’s a movie, documenting a reality. Movies feel realer than real life, so I was drenching myself in hyper-hell until I met David and switched to classic TV.
He shut the encyclopedia and carefully inserted it back between G and I.
“You’re going to a party,” I said from the couch. “Take me with you.”
His brow furrowed up into a point over his nose. His purple lips puckered up a little and he had trouble looking me in the eye. I could tell that he wanted to bring me to the party but he didn’t want to. That was the conundrum of the human heart.
I got up and held the bottle in one hand and the heart in the other, with my crutch in my armpit. “Tally-ho!” I said.
“Leave the heart in the fridge,” he sighed, “and be nice.”
“Get better friends and I’ll be nice all night long.” I opened the fridge and slammed it. I brushed past him, letting my skirt whisk against his leg.
We took dirt alleys and cut through parking lots. That was the terrain of our city: asphalt, strips malls, dumpsters, chain link, and endless huddling concrete. Every now and then a tumbleweed rolled in from the desert to see the sights and died in a ditch or pressed up against a fence. We drank the wine on the way. I yelled at passing cars about how much I hated screw-off wine caps. We walked by the grease trap of a MacDonald’s where it smelled like someone had died. I cursed fast food and chucked the wine bottle at the drive-through speaker. Glossy wine spun from the neck, painting the starlight with blood. The bottle missed the speaker and tumbled harmlessly into a pile of trash bags. David strode beside me, swinging his legs in the long way he had, a nervous grin on his face.
I’d met him in the early days of summer, when the sun beat the hell out of the city during the day and the desert winds took over at night. It was a season of tank tops and jackets. I first saw him at a release party hosted by a literary magazine that published only experimental writing that blurred the line between prose poetry and flash fiction. ProseFlash—it was awesomely irrelevant. I’d had my first pieces published in their most recent cyber issue and instead of an honorarium they gave the contributors shots of Patrón. We tossed them back and swore nothing could ever corrupt us.
David juggled at that party, which was held at the house that all of the editors rented together. They had a compost heap, several rotting couches, and a kiddie pool in the all-dirt back yard. The air swirled with flies and bumblebees. David stood in the blue and pink plastic pool. The grimy water lapped at his slender hairy ankles and he wove three apples between his long-fingered hands. His pants were folded up to the knee. His skeleton looked like it had traveled back in time from a dystopic future where food was scarce. I took off my own shoes and mismatched socks and folded up my corduroys. My legs were hairy. I stood face to face with him and he tried to teach me. I dropped apples. We got wet. We splashed. I bit an apple and he took it and turned the shape of my mouth into a carousel between his hands.
I was called away to read aloud the prose poems I’d written about a time-traveler named Dr. Cone who could never find love because he was lost among the many dimensions. They were a hit. Later in the night I found David sitting in a circle of chairs around the fire-pit. He strummed a guitar and taught everyone to sing “The Internationale.”
I stood close to him and with my hip against his bicep and my arm draped around his frail shoulders. He looked up at me. His eyes were brown.
“We’re pals now,” I told him.
He smiled like a shy boy, without showing any teeth. His mouth was wide. His face was made of pits and mountains.
“Get my number from somebody,” I said.
“Give it to him now!” someone yelled. Their face was a tangle of smoke and orange firelight.
“I can’t remember what it is!” I yelled back.
People hollered out digits. They suggested 1-900 numbers and vulgar websites. Someone said, “Recite us a poem!” and I tried to step into the fire pit to prove I was divine. I spilled words into the panic. Someone took me in a fireman’s carry and David hung in an inverted world. His mouth was an O and the hole of his guitar was an O and his eyes were Os where the primordial red gathered in pools. I told him how I saw circles in everything as they carried me away and put me to bed.
We met for coffee the next day and spent 30 hours or so together, dovetailing TV shows one into the other, drinking cans of beer, talking about every last piece of nonsense, passing out on his couch at dawn, waking up at noon to order pizza. We had to order it cheese-less and meatless because I was lactose intolerant and he was a veggie. After that we became inseparable. We sashayed from drunk to sober in diurnal cycles. Every day after work I’d walk to his tiny apartment and we’d mock TV all night, or play revolutionary Scrabble where the only proper nouns allowed were the names of revolutionaries and they counted triple, or we’d take each other to parties where writers and musicians and socialists gathered to partake in the joyless fuck of life.
The party we went to the night I found the heart was a pretty amiable, dignified affair when I hobbled up with David in tow. It was at a house mid-way through the process of falling apart at the seams. Peeling stucco and vigas split by decades of sun and storm. A yard of dirt, weeds, cigarette butts, and skittering cockroaches. A front patio with a cracked brick floor peopled by sensitive guys with thick-framed glasses wearing sandals and skinny or chubby chicks with hair dyed primary colors and names like Monet or Lenore. Plenty of silk scarves, awkward noses, and inscrutable tattoos on necks, feet, and forearms. A skinny white boy with dreads spun in hippy-inspired bliss. I made sure to crunch one of his bare feet with my crutch. I elbowed a very sweet-looking girl with a flower behind her ear and cursed someone’s bandana-wearing dog. I trailed impending disaster behind me like a cape.
I blundered my way through the rooms of peeling white paint and into the back yard. They had a keg. I put the tap in my mouth, but David pulled it away and filled a couple of those red plastic glasses they have at all bad parties. I took a sloppy drink and let myself enjoy a foam mustache over my real one. David’s eyes couldn’t keep still. They rolled around in his head as if he’d lost his mom and expected her to show up at a lame post-college pre-life party.
Some guy with a blond beard and glasses came around with a jar of suspicious-smelling honey. I let him put a spoonful on my tongue and found out a few minutes later that the colors of the night were more splendid than I’d ever realized. I got myself a perch on a dead washing machine by the fence and talked to a teenaged kid about space-time travel. He had a theory that every dream had a tiny dose of warp capability and that if you got enough enlightened people dreaming hard enough in the same place, a worm-hole would open and suck everyone’s consciousness to a more harmonious dimension. David hovered at my elbow with his gaze everywhere but on us.
The first hour blurred by and I found myself part of a ring of people standing around listening to some gorgeous moron. He was a libertarian or a communist or a more generic sort of idealist, and he was too handsome to look at. I wanted to smash his face because I wanted to kiss his face. He was speechifying all sorts of crap and being generally worshipped because of his chin and his eyes and his shoulders, and eventually he said something absurd and offensive like, “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people just listened to each other?”
So, I pulled out the heart. I’d faked putting it in the fridge, of course, and then slipped it into the tote bag I used as a purse. I wound up like a starting pitcher and hurled it at him. The heart hit him in the mouth. It made a tennis ball sound and rebounded surprisingly far. The handsome guy flicked his tongue in and out like a snake. He rubbed his palm across his lips and inspected the slime that lay spread across it. He stretched his tongue far out of his mouth and wiped it on the sleeve of his ironic t-shirt.
I picked up the heart and brandished it in the air like a talisman warding off dumbness. I gave each and every person in the circle a dose of my terrible yellow stare. Then David slipped his hands under my armpits and dragged me off toward a more remote part of the party where I wouldn’t bother any of the decent company.
I’d ruined a lot of parties. I was good at it. One of them was the 4th of July party, where David and I had begun to disintegrate.
That was the summer when I worked for the city. They’d hired me to research all the terrible things that could happen to you if you became a meth head. You could lose your teeth, for example. Your fingernails could shrivel up until they looked like Triscuits. Your teeth could fall out and you could age thirty years overnight until your skin looked as wrinkly as genitals all over. Your hair could thin and straighten and turn orange until you looked like a scarecrow from hell. Then one day as you, desperate for a fix, were shooting liquid drain-o into your neck, you’d accidentally start yourself and your meth-baby on fire and burn out like a dying star.
That was the kind of stuff I’d write up so that my boss could wince at it.
The party was split into living room and backyard factions. Through the living room window, I spied gorgeous Patrick, a boy I had a crush on, who’d looked at me as if I were a leper when I walked through the front door of the party. He had curly black hair, green eyes, and freckles. He stood in the backyard kissing a girl with smooth brown hair and smooth brown skin. She had boobs and all that other stuff that guys like. I stared at them touching each other and kissing in the curtains of twinkling and flashing light showered down on them from the bombs that we throw to celebrate America. They kissed and the sky thundered with joy. I wanted to burn the picture into my retinas. I wanted it to hang over everything I looked at for the rest of my life, like a ghost of just another moment that proved I was the worst thing the world had ever seen.
Around me, everyone in the living room was listening to someone tell a funny story. Everybody was guffawing and having a grand time. I busted into the middle of it and grabbed a shot of tequila out of some meathead’s paw. I held the shot glass of clear tequila up to the bare light bulb in the ceiling and thought I could see pure nihilism on the other side, shimmering in white light. I yelled “Down with penises!” and threw the shot back. People cheered and hooted and booed. Someone handed me another shot and I toasted to “True Hate!” and drank liquid that tasted like fire.
The next thing I knew David and I were lying head to heels on a hammock strung between a weeping willow and a lone fence post. My tongue lay numb and alien in my mouth, swaddled in the acrid paste of recent vomit. As we swung gently in the night breeze, David’s arm strayed across his chest and his fingers began to toy with my ankles. They brushed down along my calf and twined in my leg hair. His other hand, lying between our bodies, probed around, trying to find mine in the dark.
I fell out of the hammock. I rose to my hands and knees and then by some miracle stood on my feet. David sat up. He lay his soft fingers against my cheek. His dark eyes hung a few inches from mine. His breath gusted from his nostrils and fanned my clavicles with chilly air. “You’re the moon, Amy,” he whispered. “You’re the moon.” He tilted his head and closed his eyes and pushed his face gently toward mine.
I managed not to pull back so hard that I fell. His hand stayed suspended between us where my cheek had been and his face showed such naked emotion that I couldn’t look at it.
“We’re pals,” I croaked. I walked away without saying anything else. I did it because I was a closed-off person and because I thought that if I fell for someone like David—a skinny boy, whose face didn’t look quite right and whose shoulders were narrow and sloped and whose chest caved in instead of jutted out—I thought, if I get with this boy everybody will say, look at the ugly people in love. We guess they had no other choice. So, I turned away from his soft lips and velvety whiskers and blundered off into the night.
The next day, on my walk home from work, I was hit by a car. That was a Tuesday.
I was crossing the street with a walk signal and everything when the dashing judge’s son in his red convertible made a right on red. He wasn’t expecting a pedestrian, because in America you’re supposed to drive. He knocked me into the intersection and sped away. I lay with my cheek on the asphalt and watched his license plate grow quickly smaller, then disappear around a corner. I had no insurance and no lawyer would take my case. I didn’t have a dime to spend on one, nor enough beauty or charm to barter, and everyone knows if you’re broke there is no justice. My leg never healed right. It still hurts when I go down stairs and on the damp winter days. During my overnight stay at the hospital no one came to check on me. When they released me with torn ligaments and fifteen stitches in my face, I had to ask the welcome desk to call a cab to take me back to my apartment.
David hauled me away from the man I’d hit in the face with a human heart and installed me in a lazy boy in a back corner of the yard. It stank of rust and mildew. The cushions, once green, had been tortured and scorched by wind, rain, and sun into a dismal hue. I cranked the handle on the side and the foot rest lurched up crookedly. I let my sandals fall on the ground, lifted my legs onto the rest one at a time, and tilted my crutch against the arm.
David sat on a stool at my feet. A security light shone from the alley directly behind me. It turned David’s glasses into mirrors that held twin images of a girl splayed on a derelict recliner framed by weeds and junk. She had thick copper and gold curls on her head, legs, and forearms. She had amber eyes and downy gold fuzz on her upper lip; her right cheek was a hill above a sunken plain of acne scars, and her left was a purple and yellow rumple of swelling and stitches. A black bruise the size and shape of Texas creeped down her left thigh below the hem of her skirt like something evil that was trying to escape and corrupt mankind.
David wrapped his long fingers around the girl’s feet. My feet. His face was tender and miserable.
Maybe the heart was a revelation. Maybe hope existed and every now and then the world delivered you up a symbol that could renew and rekindle that hope. Maybe the heart was saying, hey Amy, you’re not getting it. Life is good and possible and all that crap you never believed in. You didn’t believe it, so I’m this really obvious symbol to tell you. Believe. Try. Have hope.
I let my legs fall to each side of the leg rest and leaned forward. I fell into David’s chest. I caught his shoulders in my palms and kissed him. His lips were soft between the wire of his facial hair. His breath was like butterscotch. The tips of his eyelashes brushed mine and that minute twining was the most intimate thing I’d ever felt.
David pulled his face back until our lips separated. He took my wrists in his hands, lifted them from his shoulders, and eased me back into the rotten embrace of the lazy boy whose owner had hated it too much to even throw it out properly. He picked up my hurt leg and lay it again on the leg rest.
The party was picking up steam. Behind David, the house spewed more and more revelers who huddled around the keg and clustered across the barren landscape of deceased lawn, skeletal bush, and wizened tree. David rose from the stool, turned, and shrunk into that tableau of wasted life until he was just an obscure figure with long legs and curly hair. His figure mingled with others tall and short, stocky and skinny, until it met with a particular silhouette that stood beneath the awning’s shadow and in front of the light streaming through the window. It was a girl’s figure. She was on the petite side and a nimbus of red stood around her head from where the light hit her, like a lunar eclipse. I watched until the two figures stepped from the shadows into the moonlight, and I saw David leading a ginger girl with skin like a glass of milk toward the gate around the side of the house. They left together and I knew who he’d been looking for all night.
I awoke in the same chair in the morning and no one had spread a blanket over me. The sun hovered just above the horizon. Its rays sliced between the houses and cut across my eyes. I levered my stiffened body up with my crutch and fished my tote bag from where it lay in the dust. The bulk of the heart pressed outward against the cloth. I teetered through the side yard and banged around at the gate until I got it open and then I let my misery loose on the early morning streets. I limped home across the desolate city, beneath the overpasses and across the black parking lot wastelands. I cried out my laments at the emptiest bluest sky you’d ever see about how the judge’s son had maimed me with his rich person car, and how a whole houseful of festive people had left me in a dark corner to die, and how the most beautiful and gentle boy would now never be mine.
Dan Darling has worked as a juggler, bartender, IRS agent, cafe manager, and magician. He earned his MFA at the University of New Mexico and now serves as a professor of writing and literature at Normandale College.