An Open Heart
John Denner on the toilet. Forty-four, not manifestly unhealthy, hyperactive. Second wife claims he’s busy even in sleep. First wife doesn’t give a damn. Five kids lumped into incompatible groups of teenagers and rugrats. Teenagers with first wife. Fully engaged in activities and classes requiring frequent above-and-beyond cash injections. Fencing, ballet, piano, traveling lacrosse team, school trips to Madrid, Rome, Hershey. Rugrats waiting in the wings for tennis, soccer, drama camp. Private school and college for all. Denner stares into an abyss of non-retirement and stingy domestic vacations. Mortgaged for life. Declines to acknowledge, privately or otherwise. Works killer hours. Favorite saying: “You can sleep when you’re dead.” Teenagers and rugrats know it by heart.
Knock on bathroom door. An oasis, everyone wants in.
“Occupied!” calls Denner.
Phone buzzes in one hand, sports page clutched in the other. Second wife. In the office forty-five minutes and she’s calling already. Lets it go to voicemail and fingers the third number on contact list.
“It’s Denner….that was definitely a ball…bases loaded. Should have gone to extra innings…I heard the plate ump ate Mexican before the game. He just wanted to get into the clubhouse…did you see him waddling? Yeah, carry it over to tonight…they can’t lose three in a row.”
IPad balanced on sink. Denner checks email. Phone perched on thigh. Sports page folded on floor, face-up for essential box-score reference. Proctologist has warned about sitting on the toilet longer than needed. Denner needs. Bathroom only place in office he can concentrate. Back at cubicle, three screens and a phone vying for attention. An entire floor of waist-high cubicles stretching into infinity. Like the desert – nowhere civilized to rest the eyes unless on a passing ass or lipstick-and-mascara-daubed face three rows over, or two, or four. Wasteland of distractions. Full focus available only in toilet, no endless expanse of attention-draining vista. Simply gray walls.
Denner takes a second to reflect on the tranquility of the color gray. Battleship gray; reminds him of halcyon days as junior officer aboard unreasonably frigid nuclear guided-missile cruiser USS Arkansas, designation CGN-41. Debauched nights in Subic Bay, Honolulu, San Fran. Nothing especially peaceful in the fond memories.
Another knock on door. Barbarians at the gate.
No muttering, no raised voices. Most polite in this office. Must be calming effect of endless view from cubicles. Straight out through massive impact-resistant panes, over roofs of lesser workplace citadels, across several area codes and beyond. Phone vibrates on thigh. Second wife again. He should take it.
“Hi, honey,” she says. “How’s work?”
“My mother wants to come over tonight.”
“Why?” He searches for coffee. Paper cup on the floor. Most unsanitary, but they clean well here after all others have gone home. Undocumented aliens scrubbing zealously for hours before slipping across bridges and through tunnels in dead of night to overcrowded ramshackle rentals in outer boroughs.
“For dinner?” Sip of warm, black, no-sugar so it’s healthy coffee. “Did you ask her or did she invite herself?” Contains a shake of cinnamon for his cholesterol, a concession to health.
“She wants to bring her chicken casserole.”
No answer means self-invite.
“She can’t come over.”
“Why not?” No petulance. Wife used to his quirks.
“We hate her.”
“It’s my mother.”
“That’s why we hate her.”
“I don’t hate her. You do.”
“As soon as you wise up and start hating her too maybe we can have her over for dinner.”
“That makes no sense.”
Slight exasperation detected.
“It’s makes perfect sense,” Denner says. “To me.”
“But I love my mother.”
“Uh, Uh, I’ve told you about using that word lightly.”
“It’s my mother.”
“And you don’t just go around saying you love your mother all the time, do you? It’s a loaded word – only to be used when you absolutely mean it.”
“I do mean it.”
“You can say I love the Knicks against Miami, with a spread of six. I love Lucky Pantaloons in the 8th.”
Denner picks up sports page, suddenly needing to check who is in the eighth at Aqueduct. “I love the BLT at the Astro Diner. I love Lucy-”
“You can love all that stuff but I can’t love my mother?” wife says, getting angry now. “What’s wrong with you?”
“She’s a vicious Doberman. You’ve got to keep her at a distance-“
Denner speaking to a void, second wife hung up. Contemplates calling back, decides against it. Let it play out. Phone vibrates again.
Customer asking for Willows. Perfectly groomed. Ivy league. Sales leader. Major saleshole. Possibly bisexual.
“Willows is ‘out sick’ today.” Denner performing. “Why? Off for a well-deserved rest. Apparently, he was observed chasing a puppy around the dog park on his lunch break yesterday, trying to smell its breath. Seeking a touch of lost innocence. Yes, it is strange. Pressures of the job. Can I put you in for your standard order? I’ve got it here on the screen. Why don’t we double it with the holiday weekend coming up. Oh, you’re closed on the holiday weekend? Who does that? What? – nothing. Better stock up for Tuesday when the customers come roaring back. Willows said what? Call him on his cell phone? I wouldn’t. Doctor’s orders. No, no ETA on Willows return. Give me a call next week.”
Slurp remainder of rapidly cooling coffee, tongue hunting for life-saving cinnamon. Knob rattles, thankfully no knock. Phone vibrates. Willows. Better take it, head off trouble.
“I know you’re trying to pilfer my clients.” No preamble. Willows’ fraudulent old-world charm discarded to the wind when the chips start tumbling.
“I deny that emphatically,” Denner says. “If you were at your desk you wouldn’t have to labor under that misconception, Willows.”
“I’m at the hospital. My wife is preparing to have triplets. This afternoon.”
Triplets. Willows overcompensating. Can’t settle for lone babies like normal people, or even twins like overachievers. Driven to be super-hero even in child production department.
“So you might be out three times longer than normal?”
“Do not call my clients!”
“I don’t need to, they call me. Mr. Reliable.”
“Did you forward my desk phone to your cell?
“Blasphemy!” cries Denner.
“And stop telling people I’ve transferred to the Madagascar office!”
“I don’t know Willows,” says Denner. “I hear it’s a hotbed of sales activity.”
“We don’t have a Madagascar office.”
“There you go. Who’s going to believe you’ve exiled yourself there then? Gotta go, Willows. Another call.”
“It better not be one of my clients!”
Gladly take second wife’s call now. Can’t be more hostile than the beleaguered Willows. Triplets. Bloody hell.
“Yes, dear?” Denner calming the savage beast by voice alone.
“I can’t believe you want me to hate my mother.”
“It’s for your own good.”
“Do you even love me?”
Dreaded question. Unable to answer. Must finesse. “We’ve been married four years.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Of course I do.”
“You can’t say the word, can you?”
“Even better than that, I still like you. You don’t get a lot of that after four years together. Genuine like.”
“Hillary warned me about this,” second wife says. Poison darts from first wife. Wives One and Two talk more to each other than Denner does with either of them. Impossible to outflank the enemy in these circumstances.
“Tell your mother to bring the casserole.”
“Thanks for understanding,” second wife says with unusual sarcasm. Didn’t know she had the depth.
“Thank you for your service,” Denner says, apropos of nothing.
Flurry of knocks. Voices on the other side. No longer unfailingly polite. Breakdown of office decorum. One bathroom for entire floor. Poor planning, not his problem.
”What? I’m working. At what? At fricking plumbing.” Denner yelling through door, voice reverberating loudly off sanctuary walls. “Who am I? I’m Otis the plumber. Fixing a clog.”
Bang phone three times on exposed pipe.
“Last guy dropped a monster. Jammed everything up. Horrific stench. I’ll be out 30 minutes tops.”
All quiet after that tidbit.
Denner attempts to shake annoying tingling out of left arm. Something relatively new. Product of too much toilet sitting, caffeine, or other issue? Medical concern? No time to get checked. Acolytes of Willows will descend like vultures to pick over and devour remains of customer list if he vacates office for any amount of time. Delay any medical consultation indefinitely. Avoid all patient-type activities. Not like unfortunate father. Dreadful last days in Midwest pee-smelling facility, underwritten by Denner. Final years lost to dementia, calling down tiled hall in keening voice for someone named Marilyn to come and get him, interspersed with snippets of “Happy Birthday.” Brain tangled and collapsed, other patients glad to see him finally depart, thankful for the silence. Denner’s mother and everyone else in family claiming no knowledge of a Marilyn at any stage of father’s life. Mystery never to be unraveled without application of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques to tight-lipped family and aged drinking buddies.
Denner searches phone contacts. Under tremendous pressure from outside forces on all fronts.
“Rocco? John Denner here. Can I get a table for three tonight?…No I’m not bringing the super-stripper twins…wife and mother-in-law…I’m not a nice guy, that’s why I’m taking them to your place.”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m trying to avoid eating my mother-in-law’s chicken casserole…No, it’s not bad. I like it more than her…bring it to you? How can you be tired of your own food…yeah, I’ll bring it but it’s abnormal. First time I bring food to a restaurant…Thanks.”
Quiet again. Denner conducting actual work: E-mails to customers, some his, some copied from top secret document Willows keeps meanly concealed in locked but easily-breached drawer. An online check of precious inventory. Sixteen uninterrupted minutes of pure work. It’ll hold him for the next two hours. Almost time to vacate commode refuge for dreaded wild west of office floor, rife with distractions vying for precious attention.
Email pops up from bastard son in Oakland. Mother a former bartender at officer’s club at equally former NAS Alameda. Eyes of obsidian. Hair to match. Tremendous haunches. No contact aside from monthly direct deposit. Son a smart kid, gifted writer apparently, still in high school. Respects Denner’s opinion for some reason, against all odds and mores. No local father figure. Spends summers at Denner’s. Both wives love him like a son. Wants to know if “A Posthumous Murder” would be a better title than “A Posthumous Death” for a murder mystery story. Defer answer until evening when mind is clear after first tumbler of prized Mosstowie single-malt. Many variables involved. Another college education to finance – stipulated in legal documents filed in state of California, so far away. Might actually be worth it with this one.
Denner standing slowly, conscientiously washing hands, straightening tie, collecting items for dreaded return to cubicle. Sports page and cup to trash. IPad under arm, phone on belt. Striding out of temporary refuge, deflecting glances and stares, squeezing hand and shaking arm surreptitiously to rid of upward creeping tingle. Anticipating pastrami with hot mustard on rye, afterward sneak a cigarette in stairwell.
No sooner seated in hellish work space when visual attained on Martha Iverson, lithesome almost-beauty, striding on approach from cubicle where she resides. Five years younger than Denner, five older than second wife.
“Martha.” Only Denner sees the irony in this exchange.
“You’re good at this stuff.” Perching on desktop. “What should I get for my nephew’s birthday?”
“He’ll be thirteen.”
“Other than masturbating? I have no idea.”
Negative. “Too chubby.”
Denner pondering, problem solving. “Comics?”
Martha considering. “Maybe. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen him read.”
“Favored nephew or also-ran?”
“He’s about the best of the bunch.”
Denner already stroking keyboard, colorful website replacing spreadsheet on middle screen.
“Collector’s items. Cherished forever, or hopefully not. How much to spend?”
Martha leaning in close to view screen, radiating subtle body-heated perfume. Denner reconsidering self-imposed discriminatory age limits. She points to cover of comic costing more than he would have given her credit for. Brooding masked superhero in overly tight pants.
“About that much. Is that a good one?”
“He’ll be the envy of the other savvy chronic neighborhood masturbators.”
“How do I order it?”
“I’ll take care of it. You can buy me lunch.”
“Yeah, every day for two weeks.” Manicured nails on his shoulder. “Thanks, John. I’ll pay.”
“Know your credit card number?”
“In my sleep.”
Denner inputting pertinent information and signing off. Overpriced comic certain to gain in value winging its way to lurid nephew in time for birthday, appropriately wrapped. Receives semi-chaste kiss on cheek very close to lips and reclines in chair after good deed well done.
Satisfaction short-lived as Denner becomes aware of sweat on brow and running down chest inside shirt. Online comic purchase not strenuous enough to warrant reaction. Nor Martha’s proximity. Tingling in arm replaced with diffused pain of undetermined origin. Rummaging through drawers for aspirin. Willows probably hoarding a supply. Denner up and examining familiar contents of rival’s desk. Finds child-proof bottle, opens with only slight difficulty, chews three without water. Another under tongue for good measure. Floor almost empty at lunch-time. Denner makes way to elevator bank, intended destination deli one block away. They know him, always proper application of mustard, sandwich efficiently constructed by time he’s approaching register, no moment wasted. Walk-in clinic on way to deli. He’s passed it daily never bothering with more than a glance at patients in waiting area, on display for all caring to see. Might stop in if no crowd. See what they have to say about situation. Still have calls to make after lunch; baseball or volleyball game to attend this evening, not sure which.
Denner averts eyes from clinic on way to deli. No peek-a-boo today. All goes well with sandwich transaction, Denner standing in line sweating uncharacteristically. All involved too busy to notice. On way back to office he swerves into clinic at last second, trying to shake a tail. Waiting room cleaner than envisioned. Seated behind sliding window, Dominican Dolly Parton in fuchsia scrubs and big puffy hair gazing expectantly, waiting to be informed of malady.
Denner looking around. Another guy in suit; seated, pale, subdued in demeanor. Older bald man exuding air of jeweler, standing, rumpled shirt and tie, trying to control twitching eye.
Denner turns to Dolly, still waiting. Not here, Denner thinking to self. No. She can’t do a thing. Waves a hand in farewell, pivots, and decamps to street.
Back in building, crescendo of pain and perspiration. Bypass lunchtime cigarette, just this once.
Denner exiting elevator, still clutching sandwich, and for unknown reason, heading away from cubicle, toward immense windows with expansive view across river and miles beyond to where he lives with second wife, at this moment probably perched at custom built-in desk in kitchen expelling vast piles of money in direction of various members of service industry while toddlers kibitz in sunny playroom.
Denner wishing he was sitting at granite counter with cup of coffee pondering delicate slope of shoulders as she slaves over hot checkbook. Continues toward view for reasons inexplicable, flicking fingers sharply downward to expel negativity and pain. Aspirin not living up to expectations. Slight stumble on highly polished light-reflecting marble floor, from which he recovers. Considers bathroom, splash cool water on face. Instead, drawn to windows. Raises hand toward vast luminosity outside. Other hand dropping lunch and involuntarily clutching chest, source of immense, imponderable discomfort. Denner marching forward to face the great emptiness with an open heart.
Edward Hagelstein‘s short fiction has appeared in Colp, Cowboy Jamboree, Black Dandy, Riding Light, Fiction Fix, Thuglit, Sterling, The Harbinger, The Fat City Review, Pithead Chapel, Sundog Lit, The Whistling Fire, Phoebe and other places. He lives in Pennsylvania. Twitter: @edhagelstein