issue twenty-four

art gallery
past issues
current issue
(5600 words)
Cody T Luff
       On February 4th, 1970, a baby boy was born without a heart. There was much ado about the lack of a heart and the surpassing good health the baby boy exhibited. The doctors present at St. Jude's Charity Hospital immediately petitioned the mother of the infant for tests. These doctors claimed the medical miracle of the century was at hand. To understand how a baby boy could survive, thrive even, after being born without his heart would be a credit to modern medicine. Moira Drinkwine was unfazed by this press of doctors, unmoved by their excited cries and sweaty hands. Moira Drinkwine decided on the following course of action. First, she named her baby boy Ethan Merryweather Tea. Ethan for her own father, Merryweather because it seemed lucky and auspicious, and Tea for the baby boy's departed father. She would not pass to Ethan the family name of Drinkwine. It had proved unlucky and as she was Ethan's mother she wanted to spare him any unluck she could. Second, she agreed only to those tests that didn't involve needles, scalpels, or drugs. These sweaty doctors could look all they wanted but she would be damned before they cut, poked or doped her baby boy. And finally, she refused her consultation with the priest at St. Jude's Hospital, stating quite plainly that she and God had already said all there was to say to one another and that was well enough for her.

After three days of X-rays and examinations, Ethan Merryweather Tea proved to be completely healthy. As they were not allowed to look inside the baby boy save by x-ray, the doctors were still unsure as to why Ethan was alive, being that he had no heart. Their theory was outlandish but it suited Moira fine enough and she took her baby boy home on the fourth night of her stay at St. Jude's Charity Hospital. The doctors believed her dear little boy was able to pump blood through his tiny little veins by breathing alone; there was something about his muscles that was unique. It was a sure bet that Ethan would be quite strong but if he breathed too slowly or too quickly, or heaven forbid, held his breath for too long... well the doctors were quite unsure what would happen, but whatever did, it wouldn't be good. Not good at all.

The first year of Ethan's life was about concentration. Moira concentrated on keeping her son's blood pumping through his body by turning him regularly every 22 minutes. She rolled her infant from side to side as he slept if she felt that he was breathing too slowly to keep his little veins full. Ethan concentrated, or rather his body concentrated, on the rhythms fed to it by Moira; his muscles learned and his lungs remembered. Every roll was stored in his body like an inflatable raft, ready for action. After his first year both Moira and Ethan were fully trained to the maintenance of a body that was born without a heart. The second year of Ethan's life was preserved by Moira's mother-in-law, Berta. Berta had become very close to Moira during Moira's marriage to Berta's son, Ethan's now deceased father. She wore the title of "Grandma" perfectly and was covered with wrinkles that looked like smiles even though she was not old. Berta had been trained by Moira in the care of a heartless infant and was keen to observe all signs pointing to trouble. The trouble came when Ethan bobbled underwater, like any child might, during a warm bath. The toddler had smiled so widely that Berta was nearly thrown off guard, laughing as Ethan closed his eyes beneath the soapy water. The trouble, as Moira and Berta later puzzled it out, was that Ethan held his breath when he went underwater. Holding his breath effectively stopped his blood in its tracks. The equivalent of someone's heart ceasing in their chest. But Ethan had no heart to cease and was quickly revived out of water with a few breaths from Berta's massive lungs. As a man, Ethan could never recall this event but he often imagined Berta blowing hugely into his mouth and a shiny, wide-eyed toddler inflating like a circus balloon. Needless to say, as Ethan grew older there were never any swimming lessons and he never learned to play any wind instruments. He had to settle for the squirt guns Berta bought him and playing the tambourine in his music classes.

There were two things to know about Ethan. The first is that he was born without a heart and breathed in such an even and relaxed manner that his classmates hated sitting by him. The second was that Ethan's first two initials were E. M. and his last name was unfortunately Tea. This lead to his pet name Em and also to the name he was referred to at school: Em-tea or, as the kids screamed at him, teeth unsheathed and circling, Empty. Empty knew that there were three people in the world who loved him. His mother, his Grandma Berta and Miss Sackenbrick. Miss Sackenbrick was the school nurse and she was as wide at the waist as Berta but much shorter. She loved Empty because others didn't. Perhaps she couldn't help herself as she had lived through the hell of grade school in much the same manner as Empty. Every bump delivered with the words, you're so heartless, or you're so hollow; and every punch emphasized by, you're as Empty as a paper sack, would deliver Empty to Miss Sackenbrick's office for a band-aid and a warm hug that pressed him to her huge bosoms. Miss Sackenbrick ruffled his hair and said that an empty sky was a blue sky and a blue sky was the most beautiful vision allowed to mankind. Junior high was completed with many more scratches, many more punches but without Miss Sackenbrick. She nursed grade schoolers and Empty had moved past her somehow. His first time in the shower after physical education class found two bony kids staring at his chest. They told Empty that they thought there would be some sort of cave in there, where his heart wasn't. Empty had stared at his own chest in the mirror that night as he listened to his mother and Berta yell answers to game show questions to the sounds of canned applause. He had placed his hand over his muscular chest and felt... nothing at all.

Things changed for Empty his freshman year of high school. The doctors from St. Jude's Charity Hospital had predicted that Empty would be strong but they had underestimated just how strong Empty was. While his body was never large, his muscles were as taut as kite string and he would often help the AV club move speakers from one room to the next with a giant speaker firmly wedged between his smooth hands. He could not shake his name, could not be rid of Empty, but there were fewer punches and scrapes. The biggest change for Empty was that his mother began to spend Thursday nights across the hall from their little apartment. Moira would leave around six-thirty and she would come home very late or even very early Friday morning. Empty knew she was visiting Brunaldo Wiessenmench. The owner of the entire building, Brunaldo also served as fix-it man, rent collector, cockroach killer. Brunaldo was short and wore his black hair combed over a great pink baldness that coated most of his head. He had experimented with moustaches for many years and had finally settled on a small strip of black that underlined his nose in a felty smudge. Brunaldo could never be handsome, Berta said, it wasn't in his genes. But he was always moving around with a smile beneath his moustache and even though he called Moira's little boy Empty, the word fit in his mouth in such a way that it had no sharp edges. Brunaldo said "Empty" but the word was never hollow. When his mother began her Thursday night trips across the hall Empty learned how to eat Berta's mac and cheese with a little smile.

Every good thing comes with a bad, Moira had said to Empty as she held him close. Berta did not live to see Moira's 22nd visit to Brunaldo, the visit in which Brunaldo told Moira she would never have to pay rent again if she would move in with him. Berta died while watching the Wednesday Weather with Todd Goffen. She had been at her evening exercise of eating the heaviest food in the house in order to firm up her arms. She did not choke, did not moan or cry out. Berta simply swallowed a mouthful of fortified Colby Cheddar and died. 

Empty and his mother haunted their little apartment together for two weeks. They left Berta's bottom print in the living room chair untouched and without ever saying a word of it, both swore off Colby Cheddar for the rest of their lives. Grief is not broken easily; both Brunaldo and Moira were worried that Empty's leaden sighs might slow his breathing to such an extent that he would be under some form of harm. Brunaldo took drastic measures and invited Moira and Empty to his brother-in-law's farm on the very skirt of the outskirts of town. It was a sorry little farm that if it had the breath to do so would have apologized to Brunaldo's guests the moment they drove up the drive. Regardless of the gray clapboard and dropping windows that seemed ready to weep, Empty loved all he saw. There were little goats stomping around that had more mud crusted on their bodies than hair, there was a pig that seemed too depressed to eat and two large cows, one with an evil-looking lazy eye that swiveled like the pendulum on a clock. Brunaldo had warned everyone at the farm to call Empty by his given name of Ethan and had also warned Ethan and Moira that everyone at the farm was crazy, being as they were related to his brother-in-law. Brunaldo walked Ethan and Moira around the farm, pointing out skinny chickens that menaced from a leaning coop, a pond where a lone fish was flashing his belly to the drizzly sky, and finally to the calf pens. Here they ran into Brunaldo's brother-in-law. He was a big belly attached to a droopy-eyed face. Brunaldo's brother-in-law also had an interest in moustaches and wore a serious-looking brush that pointed out stiffly from his upper lip. The man was red eyed and smelled like a hollowed-out fifth of whisky. Brunaldo made a show of hugging his brother-in-law and they babbled at one another as Ethan looked into the calf pens. There, alone and plastered with a reeking yellow mud, stood a calf. It couldn't be handsome; Berta might have said handsome just wasn't a word to use for this filthy little animal. No, it couldn't be handsome but Ethan loved what he saw. Moira watched her son and she touched her palm to her own chest and turned to Brunaldo's brother-in-law and asked him, How Much? There was a great deal of arguing but Moira Drinkwine was a woman who could shame a statue if the mood swayed her. Brunaldo's brother-in-law looked stunned in the rear-view mirror as they drove away from the farm, the calf coating Brunaldo's entire back seat with muck as Ethan held it in his strong arms.

Brunaldo unlocked all the safety doors that led to his building's roof and only Ethan was strong enough to carry the calf those many flights. Brunaldo followed Moira, Ethan, and the calf up, muttering and smoothing his hair over his shining scalp. The calf walked uncertainly around the vent conduits and water tower. The building's roof was very large and could have held an entire fifth-grade soccer game. The calf returned to Ethan and eyed him, big, sticky cow eyes staring into the face of a boy who had breathed at a steady rhythm for his entire life. After a moment the calf blew such a sneeze that two ropes of mucus twined across Ethan's shirt. Ethan patted the calf's back and offered a Gesundheit. Moira laughed like a torch singer and said that would make a great name for a snotty little animal. Gesundheit didn't mind the name and soon the roof of Brunaldo's building was littered with cow flops, shovels to deal with the cow flops, claptrap sheds, buckets, feed sacks and a snotty little calf named Gesundheit.

It was the day Moira told Ethan that Gesundheit reminded her of Berta, but in only the good ways a cow could remind someone of a mother-in-law, that Brunaldo made his big move. He walked into their apartment with his pillow and three copies of National Geographic. Without saying a word he put his pillow on Moira's bed and the magazines on the coffee table. From that day on Brunaldo lived with them. It was a good way for Ethan to spend the last few years of high school; he liked the way Brunaldo was always attached to Moira with hand or foot. Brunaldo held Moira's hand as they shopped at the deli, touched her foot with his own as they watched TV, slept so close to her that when covered, the lump in the bed looked like one person. High school ended and Ethan learned how to be a fix-it man from Brunaldo. Between caring for his growing steer (Moira had insisted in having a steer on the roof and not a bull), fixing radiators, and breathing evenly, Ethan was very busy. The day Ethan turned twenty he was mugged in an alley as he was on his way home carrying a bag of feed for Gesundheit. Brunaldo had often wondered what possessed a mugger to attack a man who had as many muscles as Ethan had, who was carrying a large bag of feed over one shoulder with such unconscious casual motion that the presence of strength glowed from the man's pores. The mugger tried to punch and kick Ethan but Ethan had a lot of practice at being punched and kicked so the mugger tried another approach. He produced a knife and tried to stab Ethan in the heart. It must have been a horror show to the mugger, his wide-bladed knife sticking out of Ethan's chest as Ethan stood holding his feed bag and staring at the knife's handle. The mugger ran screaming and someone must have called 911 because there were sirens everywhere. Even though Ethan didn't have a heart, he did bleed like everyone else and so he finally fell down like a patient tree in a slow-motion forest that had used up its standing time. After Moira's and Berta's constant training and care, the only sign of life that Ethan could give as he lay unconscious on the sidewalk was a turn of his body every 22 minutes. But even this sign was robbed of him as the arriving paramedics could detect no heartbeat and only the faintest of breath sounds. Both paramedics listened to poor Ethan's chest and held his wrists in their tired fingers. This was the fourth homicide that day and both men were crushed by it. A young man, in his prime, stabbed to death on the street. With sorrow all over their faces they proclaimed Ethan dead and bundled him in a bag and loaded him into their ambulance.

The news came to Moira in the form of two young police officers that held their hats in their hands. They whispered to Moira in low, low tones with pale faces and lips pressed into emptiness. Moira loved her son, she loved her heartless little boy, had brought him into the world and loved every evenly-spaced breath he took. Berta's death had been hard on her. Berta was her only friend, save for Brunaldo. This loss forced her overworked heart, which already beat for two people, to slow and finally stop. The officers that had brought Moira the death news caught her in their arms, thinking she fainted. It wasn't until Brunaldo came from the kitchen with coffee that the policemen began to feel for a pulse.

Brunaldo had been a fix-it man for so long that even though the avalanche of grief that was Moira's heart attack threatened to drown him outright, he understood that even though one heart was permanently broken, the emptiness of Empty might yet be saved. Brunaldo, still holding his dead love, had the officers race him to St. Jude's Charity Hospital, the last known place of Empty's body. 

At the door there were so many questions and angry-eyed doctors that Brunaldo begged them to check Empty's medical records. When they did, there was an uproar. Nurses scrambled from door to door and doctors bellowed up and down corridors until they found Empty, zipped up neatly in a black plastic bag.

Brunaldo knew the doctors were excited about cutting Empty open; they wanted the void in Empty to be their own, to plumb every corner of it and scrape any meaning out that was still there. Brunaldo had no choice but to allow the knives and the needles. There were many TV crews that spoke to many doctors. There were men standing over the paleness that was Empty. Brunaldo stood with them but there was a difference between him and these others. Brunaldo held Empty's hand and said his name when the doctors couldn't remember it. Brunaldo told Empty that Moira was dead and even though Empty was unconscious, Brunaldo knew that Empty understood. A broken-hearted man sat next to a man with no heart and both bled.

Empty spent time in front of a few TV cameras and his name was printed in many newspapers and magazines. Empty had a copy of Time which bore a cover that showed an x-ray of his chest. The letters splashed across in plaster white read: "Heartless?" Empty kept this copy in a black plastic bag, under his bed with his high-school yearbook. Brunaldo turned gray, the entirety of him. His hair, his scalp, his words, all gray. He did not fix-it much, if at all, and let Empty hold his building together as he inhabited the spaces Moira had. Gesundheit grew fat and Empty rolled sod over the entire roof. A helicopter came one day and the next, and the next after. Empty's picture was printed in an important newspaper and an article was written about a steer living on a roof in the city. There was much misunderstood about Gesundheit in the article and because Gesundheit was never a handsome steer some people thought that Gesundheit was ugly enough to have been beaten or starved. If only the helicopter had taken a better picture of Gesundheit, one from the front of the fat, snotty animal. Gesundheit's belly was the only thing that Empty knew how to grow, save for sod, and as such Gesundheit was as happily swollen as a steer could be. If the helicopter had taken a closer picture then the protest wouldn't have happened and things would have been different. But then Empty wouldn't have met Emily.

The protest happened on February 3rd  in front of Brunaldo's building. There were ten people gathered, they wore clothes made of hemp and waved signs made of cardboard. There were badly drawn images of both Gesundheit and Empty, but Empty's image had a big, fat red line that cut it diagonally in half. Empty and Brunaldo watched the protesters march in short, violent circles and listened to them scream, Empty! Empty! He really IS heartless!

The protesters worked themselves into tighter and tighter circles until one was either so dizzy or so furious that she leapt from the mass of hemp and charged Empty. She was small inside her oversized hand-made poncho but her teeth were naked and her eyes were full of that red line that cut Empty's image in half. Empty wanted to invite all of them upstairs, up all twenty flights so that they could see how fat and how sloppily happy Gesundheit was. Empty opened his mouth to do just that but the protester stopped him with her fingernails. She raked his face with all five of her fingers and Empty turned to surprised stone on the steps of Brunaldo's building. She spat in his bleeding face and called him so many things that Empty forgot to breathe. As he fell over from his sudden lack of circulation he saw police arrive. Someone yelled his attacker's name and she fled, one hempen sandal slapping free of her foot. Her name was Emily. Brunaldo had to breathe life back into Empty, back into Ethan. Ethan wobbled about as the police scattered the protesters. As he bent to pick up Emily's sandal, he told Brunaldo of the time Berta had inflated Ethan like a balloon.

Ethan didn't press charges. The city decided to press them anyway. In the courtroom Emily swore at the judge and swore at the lawyers and swore at Ethan when he held her hemp sandal out over the wooden rail that divided the room. The bailiffs dragged her from the courtroom and Empty watched her go, watched her mouth wish him as dead as a rib-eye steak, as dead as a pork chop, as dead as poor Brunaldo would be in the few years Emily was to be imprisoned.

As deaths go, Empty thought Brunaldo's was a good one. The gray man died asleep in Moira's bed, her old pillow tucked under his chest. Brunaldo had been snoring mightily that night but suddenly stopped. Empty slipped into the room and touched the last tenant of Moira's bed. Brunaldo had gone to his death in boxer shorts and a thin undershirt that allowed his gray chest hair to spill out. He had died with a gray moustache and his gray bald spot naked for lack of a comb. Empty sat on the bed for a long time, holding the old man's cold hand, knowing that there was not a heartbeat to spare between them.

Brunaldo left the building to Empty and Empty took care of it and all those who lived within. All things in Empty's building were well maintained, there was not a leaking radiator to be found and if there was a problem, the tenants had their code words for the solution. They would smile and elbow one another in their bathrooms and say, "We need to run on Empty," and attempt an atonal version of Jackson Brown's voice. And if a problem was solved without Empty the tenants would smirk and say they were damn near Empty themselves.

Empty didn't know how long steers were supposed to live but Gesundheit couldn't be a good example. As cows went, Gesundheit was obese, constantly oozing from his nose or rear end, wheezing from even a few steps and extremely satisfied with his life. Empty provided his steer with everything he could imagine Gesundheit might want, mostly various foods from all over the country. Grains that were treated with vitamins, green fresh plants from the wet places of the earth and sweet things that perhaps cows shouldn't eat. Empty began sleeping in a tent he pitched in the sod on the roof of his building. Here he would breathe evenly late into the night and imagine Brunaldo holding his mother's hand in the deli down the street.

The bus hit the street lamp the day Emily was released from prison and sent the long silver pole bending in little jerks like it was confused. This happened right in front of Empty as he stood at the crosswalk, holding a paper sack filled with fresh lettuce and a box of crème-filled cupcakes. People screamed and ran and Empty concentrated on breathing evenly. The door to the bus was pulled open from the inside and people spat out like they were dropped from a great height. When the last shrieking person had fled the bus Empty could see inside, through the broken door and right to where the bus driver was face-down against the steering wheel. Empty dropped his sack and moved forward as fast has he could evenly breathe and with his the thickness of his arms he pulled the door right off the bus. He stood over the bus driver for only a moment before he gathered her in his arms and stepped outside. There was movement flashing all around and there came the smell of hot metal. When the bus caught fire Empty leaned over the bus driver as he laid her on the sidewalk. He recalled Berta's face as he put his lips to the bus driver's and breathed his life into hers.

Empty nearly passed out from these many breaths, nearly toppled over as sparks insulted his vision. The bus driver coughed and began to breathe her own breath only after Empty nearly swooned. Empty asked not to be in the newspapers this time; he didn't want to see the word "Heartless?" across the front page. He returned home and fed his crumpled lettuce and cupcakes to a slobbering Gesundheit who showed how much he appreciated Empty by licking Empty's face and then producing several overwhelming cow flops. No doubt, they were crème-filled.

The bus driver found Empty a week later. She needed to find him, she said. Needed to say thank you to the man who saved her. The bus driver had wide hips and a small chest and Empty loved every part of her when she touched his hand as they sat at Moira's kitchen table.

The bus driver moved in after only a week but she filled up the apartment to the corners. Empty only slept in the tent that he had pitched over the sod on his building's roof one last time. But he wasn't alone. The bus driver held her head to his chest in the warmth of the tent and Empty wanted to move her away from the hollow beneath his skin. She held on to him and then drew his head to her small chest and he listened to her heart beat and beat. She held his head in her arms and closed her eyes over him and told him that the sound he heard there was the sound of his heart. His heart was beating inside her chest as it always had been. Her heart was Ethan's heart.

Ethan always had one hand or foot touching the bus driver; he held her hand in the deli and touched her leg with his foot when they watched TV. The bus driver fed Gesundheit jelly doughnuts and so Gesundheit loved her as much as a steer could. They spent days mowing the sod that had rooted over the tar-paper roof of Ethan's building and nights repairing the water damage that leaked from the sod into the apartments below. Deep in the night, Ethan would move his ear over the bus driver and listen to his heart beat inside.

Ethan saw Emily screaming on the steps of the courthouse as he passed by. She was still dressed in hemp and still shouted and Ethan felt the bus driver's heart skip a beat.

After Emily was finished screaming and her eyes were scowled over she was surprised by Ethan holding out an old-looking hemp sandal that he had produced from his bag. Ethan did not know if she recognized him; maybe she would recognize the scars that were still printed on his forehead and cheek. They stood looking at each other, only a hemp sandal between them. With her sharp hands, Emily took the sandal and wondered aloud if Ethan still had his cow on the roof. Ethan said that he did and the steer was very fat and slobbered a lot. Emily watched him with her scowl slipping down. She said nothing about Ethan's scars as she walked away but she kept looking back, looking at Ethan as she faded down the stairs.

Ethan watched the bus driver breathe next to him in the darkness of Moira's room. He watched the tremble of the bus driver's pulse and he moved his head slowly over his heart within her chest, his heart, and asked it what it wanted because they had been apart too long for Ethan to know without it telling him.

The bus driver's heart did not answer but a bright yellow taxi answered for it. The bus driver's bus crumpled as the taxi turned a corner, striking the bus's front and because this had all happened before, people pried the door open and fled while the bus driver lay face-down on the steering wheel. There was one difference from before; the difference was Empty was not there. He did not breathe his life into the bus driver and she did not cough only after he had nearly swooned. No one pulled her from the bus after it caught fire and she did not find Empty a second time because she had to, just had to thank the man that saved her.

Empty was tired of death. He was so tired of hearts that kept stopping, kept quitting, that he lay down on the sod of his roof and did not move. He remembered asking his heart that beat in the bus driver's chest what it wanted and the place inside of Empty that was empty grew. He did not come down from his roof to fix radiators or kill cockroaches but no one in the building asked him to. They did not say his name as they looked up at their ceilings and closed their eyes. 

It was only after one tenant had collected the rents for the entire building and gave them to Empty as he lay in the sod on his roof that Empty slowly stood, breathing evenly, and went back to Moira's apartment. He emptied the apartment of the bus driver and it was like cutting pieces from his belly. She had been everywhere in every space and Empty brought her slowly into the living room; everything that was the bus driver was now in cardboard and sealed with tape. The last of the bus driver was a small day book, a collection of notes and numbers, names and stick figures with flowers. When he opened it he found a letter written on yellow legal paper that was folded many times. When he read the letter Empty did not move. He held the last piece of his bus driver and wished he could open the empty chest and put her letter in the place that had always been hers.

Emily found him a week later. She did not play games and she did not leave Moira's apartment that night. Emily was good at cutting things and she left her marks in the vacancies of the apartment. She did not fill the space but it was her space nonetheless. When Empty introduced her to Gesundheit she wouldn't touch the fat old cow and held onto Empty's wrist with her sharp hands and put him between her flesh and Gesundheit. The scars she gave him were in the mirror every morning and he would touch them and remember her eyes as she clawed his face so long ago, as the gray Brunaldo looked on with his mouth as wide as a surprised clown. Emily moved the bus driver's picture from Moira's bedroom to the living room, from the living room to the spare room and from the spare room Empty moved it to the tattered tent that was pitched on the sod of the roof of his building. Emily went to protests and she punched policemen and all the money Empty had was spent opening the doors Emily had slammed behind her. Sometimes when Emily was asleep, Empty would move his head over her bosom and listen to the heart there. He never asked that heart questions because he was afraid it would answer.
Time had turned Gesundheit into a glacial thing. The cow moved at speeds that precipitated grass growing between its hooves. Gesundheit's body was thick with jelly donuts and fresh eggplants. He had been grown to a ripeness that was complete. Gesundheit did not care that Emily left, breaking everything that was left in Moira's apartment. Gesundheit didn't care that Empty stood next to him holding the bus driver's picture, even in the cool rain. Gesundheit didn't care that the sod had become patchy and water leaked on the tenants below. Gesundheit had had a good life, he had no regrets and the roof had a beautiful view of a river that Gesundheit had followed with his gaze every day. The two stood together, the man leaning against the steer, listening to the heavy animal's constant wheeze. The steer had the river and the man had a picture and neither moved as the rain stopped and the night fell instead.

Empty slid the bus driver's picture open and pulled out the folded bit of yellow that was his heart. He placed it against his chest and he breathed evenly against his old cow. Gesundheit wheezed his deep-bellied wheeze and Empty looked up into the night. He waited until he could see the moon before he took a deep breath that equaled Gesundheit's wheeze and held it until he was Ethan again.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Cody T Luff. All rights reserved.