My Heart Goes Out by Amanda Bloom
A finalist for the 2019 Short Fiction Prize, Amanda Bloom’s “My Heart Goes Out” is a romantic, sweeping story of a long marriage, delivered in the compact container of a 4,000-word short story. With strong characterization and dialogue, Bloom captures the softness of time, the hope and despair of memory. There is tenderness to this story, but no melodrama. The action is superbly portrayed.
Alix Ohlin explains: “The control of time can maximize suspense, underscore theme, develop characters, and influence structure; there is no aspect of fiction that it does not touch.” Bloom’s command of time is subtle and skillful (see her author’s note for more on time). The flashbacks and compression are effective, allowing for an expansive ending to this quiet and accomplished rendering of a life together. —CRAFT
Fred was a runner, so it’s been hard to keep him still. Now we’re both still, save for his tremors.
A once-in-a-lifetime athlete, they called him. And not that he didn’t run fast, he did, but Brewster was a small town. Fred made it to Nationals his freshman year, where it became clear—to him and to all of us—he was at least a thrice-in-a-lifetime athlete.
Roger Bannister had broken the four-minute mile in England five years before, in 1954. That’s what Fred chased, that beautiful square of a number. It was a dreamy time to be a distance runner and a boy.
I was a diver, but one without a future. Either an instrument or a sport, my father said, and I was small and liked being underwater. Mer-Maid Marian, he would call me, after my middle name.
In 1964 a high schooler made it. Jim Ryun, from Wichita, Kansas. Fred was on Western Connecticut State’s track team, running the mile, the eight, and the four-by-four. I swam but on my own. Mostly I studied.
Fred went straight to the track when news of Ryun broke. A mild, clear night in June. Fred ran without a shirt on, all six-foot-two of him covered in a sheen of sweat. I waved from the bleachers.
“You know what would be truly remarkable?” I said as he came closer, still breathing hard. “Running it in four minutes even. Who cares about being the fastest when you’re the most precise?” That got me a small smile.
Fred tossed me his watch.
“Call out my splits.”
After he’d gone for it twice at 4:03.22 and 4:03.71 respectively, I thought about lying to him. I feared his heart might burst.
“One eight-five!” I called on the first lap of his third go.
From across the field, I saw him pick up his pace, leaning into the six hundred meter curve.
Less than a minute later I was out of my seat and yelling.
“You keep at it, Frederick George McCarthy! That’s a fifty-nine clean! You keep at it!”
At thirteen hundred he dug in even more. I kept hollering and he flew past me, the only sound his breath and the air parting around him. “Three fifty-eight three-one! Three fifty-eight three-one!!”
Fred slowed, bent over, and dropped to the track on his back. His heart was fine. I can hear it beating now.
Fred’s heart is a few inches from my left ear. I can see the sky over his neck. A lifetime of the crawl has made my back body strong, but I’ve never had the chest to push him off me, even if my shoulder hadn’t snapped in the fall. Fred is too big, too solid. So we’re still now, and quiet. Saving our voices for the next time a car comes.
It’s begun to snow again. At first it is magical. I try to remember the last time I lay on my back to watch the snow fall. Maybe when I was a child. I open my mouth to catch a flake, tiny and shimmering like fairy dust.
Fred doesn’t know it’s snowing, I realize. We are torso to torso and he is face down, his eyes a few inches from all the winter’s previous snows. And the thought turns instantly to a sob: this snow could cover us over before we’re found. Fairy dust becomes shards of glass.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Snow. It’s snowing.”
He’s listening for my breath, feeling for it. He’s so heavy I have trouble getting air if he inhales at the same time I do, his ribcage muscling mine down. I don’t know how long we’ve been out here. An hour? Two? Thirty minutes? It was dark when we left and it’s still dark. It will be until the morning. But as long as we’ve been down here Fred’s been careful with his breathing and reverent of mine. I turn my head to kiss his neck. My shoulder screams. Is it the top of the arm that’s broken? The clavicle? Both? His skin is warmer than my lips. I leave a shine of snot behind.
Fred’s wingspan is as long as he is tall. Or it used to be. Now it’s probably an inch or two longer.
I measured him one night after an end-of-semester party, where an art student told him he’d bet money Fred had the proportions of the Vitruvian Man. I snuck Fred into my dorm room. We were both a little tipsy. I had to stand on my desk chair to get his height.
Our positioning is fortunate, in some ways. Having our fronts pressed together is keeping that part of us warm. My parka is thick, and waterproof. Fred’s too. But he and I have only jeans on above our snow boots. The back of mine are soaked through, and his can’t be holding in much heat. A short walk, we said. To Daniel’s house and back. We didn’t make it past our yard. We are in our yard, in fact. Fred lost his balance on a piece of sidewalk aligned with our living room. I, a fool, tried to catch him. Now we are perpendicular to the sidewalk, hidden behind the five-foot wall of snow on either side of the street.
My body tells me a memory.
Fred on top of me, both of us spent from lovemaking. I liked feeling his weight.
“You okay under there?” he would ask.
Sometimes one or both of us fell asleep that way.
For months now it’s been only me on top. He’s too stiff and slow for it. It killed him at first. I did my best to banish his shame by putting on a show. A small show, but Fred saw through it anyhow.
“Stop,” he said one night, his voice sharp. “Just stop it.”
“You know.” He looked straight up into my eyes. “You’re not being you.”
After that I stopped not being me, and if I said we are very satisfied with the new order of things it would be an understatement.
Still, I miss this. The heaviness of my husband. I wonder if his body’s remembering mine beneath his.
I was only unfaithful to Fred once. Well, twice, but with the same man. I never told, not anyone. I reason in more than fifty years he must have been with someone else, too, and I’ve never agreed with the idea of being completely honest with your spouse no matter the cost. It’s good to keep some things for yourself, especially if a thing is dangerous enough to rip a person clean open. Honesty without tact can be cruelty, my father used to say, and honesty without foresight can be worse. That’s what God is there for, Dad said, for all the telling you can’t tell.
His name was Alan. I was thirty-two. He was older than me, I don’t remember by how much. A fellow swimmer. Electricity spooled between us, even when we were doing laps on opposite ends of the pool. Fred and I had been married eleven years. Phillip was ten, Georgia eight.
I was not being me with Alan. That’s what I liked about him. The first time he peeled off my bathing suit it was like he was peeling off a costume, or revealing one. I could never be this woman with Fred, nor would I want to. And with Alan, I could never be the woman who was Fred’s wife. Sleep evaded me the night of my indiscretion, not from guilt but because I buzzed.
We were as in love as ever, Fred and I. We still managed to fall into each other most nights of the week despite his long hours and my teaching, our two children. He had started out managing a small HVAC firm after college. My affair happened in the seventies, soon after his business took off with the central-air craze. But it wasn’t anything to do with Fred. I simply needed to feel new somehow.
The second time with Alan my stomach grew sour and I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. Fred stayed up with me until I banished him from the bathroom. In the morning my voice was gone. Fred and the kids waited for the virus to get them. It didn’t. I started swimming at the high school pool even despite the frigid water.
And that was the end of Alan.
It’s snowing harder now. Fred’s tremors are hidden in our shivering.
The garage door is open. That’s where the ramp is. Fred hated the idea of building one from the driveway to the yard. I hope someone will see the door and the overhead light and take it as a sign.
There are Christmas lights on all the houses around ours. This year I only had the energy for our star. The lights have always been Fred’s jurisdiction.
Fred and Phillip made the star themselves. Phillip must have been seven, maybe eight. Fred cut a star of Bethlehem out of plywood and Phillip painted it gold, then they drilled a hundred tiny little holes for strings of golden lights to poke through. It took me a good hour to change out all the dead bulbs and set it in our attic window. I can’t see it from here.
We wouldn’t have met Daniel if it weren’t for the flamingos. Two years ago, a heavy winter like this one. Fred and I woke one morning to find forty-some-odd plastic flamingos and a line of footprints spread across our yard, the snow glowing pink underneath the flock’s drawn-up legs. In the middle stood a single gold flamingo with writing in black marker: The birds would be promptly removed with a donation to Ballston Spa High’s track and field team, which was fundraising to resurface the school track. Fred bent down to look at the gold flamingo, his pajama pants tucked into boots.
“Sylvie,” he said, peering up at me from a squat, “we’ve been flocked.” A grin split his face wide open.
Fred had been diagnosed a few months earlier, in the summer. It wasn’t until the flamingos that I realized how long it had been since joy touched him.
He didn’t want to admit he was losing his body. He still ran six days a week, five miles at least. That’s how he first noticed it. He was getting slower, and not on account of being winded. Fred was seventy-one, but still more than able to run a sub-six-minute mile.
That was the summer the sixth and seventh American high-schoolers ran sub-fours. A boy in Oregon and another in Michigan both clocked in at exactly 3:59.38 within weeks of each other. It was all Fred could talk about.
He wanted to donate five hundred dollars. I thought of all the Christmas shopping we had yet to do, the unknown wave of medical bills headed our way. But I chose not to argue. Fred picked up the phone to call it in. Daniel picked up on the other end.
He lived two streets over and was in his sophomore year at Ballston Spa, a distance runner and a hurdler. Fred invited him over to collect the check. And why didn’t he join us for dinner? Daniel rolled up in his father’s truck that evening. He and Fred yammered on and on about training, nutrition, who would make it to Worlds.
“How many days are you running?” Fred asked.
“Five,” Daniel said. “I work Saturdays and Sundays.”
“It’s all about that sixth day. The top three runners in any race—they’re the ones going out six days a week.”
After dinner Fred followed Daniel out to the yard to pluck flamingoes and load them in the truck bed. The next Saturday they went out early for six fast, snowy miles. When Fred learned Daniel neared flunking off the team, I became his Wednesday evening tutor. I suspected boredom, and maybe pot, but I didn’t pry. It was nice for us. Georgia and Rich and the kids were in California. We saw them twice a year at most.
Georgia. She calls us every night to check in, and so we can say goodnight to Jill and Bo. I try to remember their bedtime, then add in the time difference. I try to remember when we left for our walk. But the numbers slide together. If she hasn’t called yet she will.
I fight waking. The bed is warm. The air on my cheeks is cold. We’ll have to adjust the thermostat so the mornings aren’t so chilly. My dream was of swimming in a warm green lagoon. I could still return to it.
“Sylvie, wake up.”
“Don’t go to sleep. I don’t think it’s good.”
In a wave I understand where we are. The sky is gray-white.
“Georgia,” I whisper to him. “She always calls.” The words come slow now, like Fred’s.
We are quiet again. Then we hear it. The bass from the car’s stereo comes before the sound of the car itself. We tense for a moment, listening for which direction it turns at the stop sign. Then we are screaming our throats raw.
“Help! Help us!”
I hear nothing over our cries. We go on and on for ten seconds, fifteen before we hush. We wait. I picture the car pulled over just past our house, the driver listening for more. But no. Brakes squeal far up the block.
“How have the neighbors not heard us?” A sob peals from me. Fred hunches his shoulders forward, the next-best thing to holding me.
“What is it?”
“I have to go.”
My breath catches. Is this how it happens? My husband perishing right on top of me?
“What do you mean?”
“I—I have to go. To the bathroom.”
“Oh honey.” I’m able to bend my right elbow. I rub his back. A pile of snow slides off him. “It’s okay. Just go.”
He whimpers, only once, the moment before. His urine is blissful at first, a hot wet spilling over my parka and into my jeans. In an instant it cools.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his tongue thick with shame.
I try to hold him with my good arm.
We’re quiet for a time. I wipe snow from my face and the span of Fred’s neck between his hat and his coat.
“I’m not sleeping.”
“I have to tell you something. I—”
“If it’s a confession don’t bother. I don’t care, I don’t want to know, and I forgive you. I love you.”
Fred says nothing. Minutes pass. I picture black lingerie and blonde hair. My husband can’t see me smile at the thought of his secret pleasure.
Then he asks: “Do you think we’re going to die?”
I try to shift my weight underneath him. I discover our jeans have iced together. We are what many would consider old. Fred’s doctor says people don’t die from Parkinson’s, they die with it.
“I don’t know.”
Phillip died on June 4, 1987. We’d learn a few days later that he and his friends were smoking grass at that field, the one that would become a strip mall years later. I like to picture Phillip laughing, maybe reaching out to touch a girl’s hand, or a boy’s. I picture him happy and golden in the late-day light. The car stereo playing loud and the doors wide open. In eighteen years he had never before been stung by a bee. He did not know what it could mean to swat at the wrong kind of bug.
There are only so many unknowns you can prepare for in life, but a dead teenager is always a waste.
This past summer Fred couldn’t run anymore. He settled for walking. Daniel’s school will have a refinished track in the spring, just in time for his senior season. Our Wednesday sessions had pivoted from Shakespeare to SATs, which he’d be taking for the fourth time in the fall.
Daniel and I sat at the kitchen table drilling vocabulary. Adept versus adequate. Reproach versus repudiation. Fred walked by dressed in his regular running shoes and shorts, stopping to kiss my forehead on his way into the garage.
“There he goes,” Daniel said.
An old poem uncovered in my head.
“My heart goes out to my Creator in love.”
Daniel said nothing.
“It’s a line from Stevie Smith. An English poet.”
“It’s about death, actually. She wrote extensively of death, and God.”
“A Good Time Was Had by All. It’s the title of one of her collections. People still say that.”
“I wish the SATs were math only.”
“I know you do.”
He leaned back in his chair, affording himself a view through the living room bay window. There was Fred, walking up the street in the most athletic way possible. We watched him go, a bright bolt of red against a span of lawns. Daniel picked up his pen and pressed the tip into the wood table.
“Why don’t you join him for a mile or so? Then head back and we’ll continue.”
Daniel brightened. The pen dropped.
“You’ve earned a break.”
Georgia had been like Daniel in high school. A whiz in math and chemistry, uninterested in English or any other language. Phillip had been the reader, the poet, the songwriter.
I thought our family might fall apart after he died. Fred withdrew. I clung to the shell of him. Georgia stopped coming home some nights. Phillip’s friends opened their arms to her, their dime bags and cases of beer. We did not have the wherewithal to discipline her, to enforce anything aside from the heavy tenderness our grief had blown open. I was surprised to find her at the kitchen table early one morning. She spooned cereal into her mouth like she hadn’t eaten the day before. I folded her into me and felt her crying without noise. Milk and half-chewed Cheerios spilled from her mouth.
“I love you,” I whispered into her hair. “We love you.”
In a few moments she pulled away from me and we were separate again. I went to start the coffee. Georgia returned to her breakfast. I stood over the sink, looking into the backyard. The counter beneath my palms felt more solid than anything in recent memory. I gripped it, hard. My knuckles cracked.
When I turned around again Georgia and her cereal bowl were gone. The table glowed in the sun, catching on a few droplets of milk. Figments of dust drifted in the light like miniature snow.
The first time Fred fell he hit the last step on the stairs. The bruise on his left buttock spread to the size of a large grapefruit and deepened to the color of thick red wine. He still ran then. Two months before he had been walking from the car to the front door and ended up with a twisted ankle. After he healed up he went right back to walking, so I started walking with him. His gait naturally outpaces mine, but he slows down for me.
I don’t know that Fred has an ear for rhythm, but he can certainly feel it, and look for it. He was a heck of a dancer, and on the track you could see him ride the pack, discerning its heartbeat in a way the other runners didn’t. He was watching, always watching. Even now. He can’t see me, but his body’s watching mine, reading my breath.
I am deeply cold now. The only warmth is from where Fred’s torso meets mine. I want to pull this warmth over me like a quilt. I wipe my face of snow again, Fred’s neck, the parts of his back my good arm can reach. The sky is an upended ashtray.
He’s this way in bed, too. Observing, listening with something more precise than hearing. It’s impossible to lie about my pleasure to him. I learned that quick enough, and adapted to it slowly.
It was a year after Phillip. For the first time since our son’s death Fred and I made love with something close to joy, or hope. I looked up. I saw my husband seeing me. I whispered:
“What if we tried again?”
“Tried what?” he whispered back.
“For a baby.”
Fred stopped moving.
Quickly, I said:
“But not to replace him, or anything like—”
“I know. Of course not.”
We spoke in a rushed hush, like two kids keen on eloping. Would Georgia be angry? Livid. Would she stay angry? Never. Were we foolish? We didn’t care. We were forty-four years old. He was moving in me again, watching me, reaching his hand down to touch me the way he’d learned decades earlier. My body opened under him and he fell inside.
We laughed about it the next morning. I wasn’t menopausal but certainly close enough. Our night of passion and impulsive dreaming couldn’t possibly take. And it didn’t take—we were a week and a half behind anyhow—but something else did. We had walked from the first stage of mourning into the second. After that the third and the fourth and on and on. Sometimes I would fall asleep in the fifth stage and wake up in the first. There were times when Fred saw a whole year pass in stage three while I looked on from stage seven. But that night we walked forward in each other.
I can’t keep my eyes open with the snow. It is hard to stay awake. I am no longer shivering.
I am praying.
I discover I am in love with Fred in his snow cave. He’s built it into the side of the hill next to Brewster High’s track, after a snowstorm dropped four feet of glittering powder. The ceiling is domed and perfectly smooth, save for a small circular air vent he’s cut. He explains the trough between the two packed-snow platforms collects cold air. Inside is hushed and dim.
“It’s like a little church,” I say.
It’s not warm, exactly, but we’re out of the wind. I look at Fred, across from me on his own platform. He is happy and pink, still warm from his building efforts. It is the first time I have seen him content in stillness. I move from my platform and kiss one cheek, then the other. Beneath his hat his hair is damp.
When Fred leaves early for work he kisses me goodbye fresh from the shower. His mouth is minty and his hair is wet between my fingers. He kisses me and he smells fresh and new and I pull him closer before he laughs softly and tells me he has to go. I hear the front door close and drift back to sleep. There’s still one delicious hour before I have to wake Phillip and Georgia.
But before my alarm sounds someone is waking me. They are saying my name, and Fred’s. It is Phillip. I bolt awake but cannot move. A smoldering pain rips and blooms through my left side.
“Phillip! What is it? Are you alright?”
His face swims above mine. He is scared. My instinct is to hold him but I cannot. I can only lift one hand to his face. Why am I crying? He takes my hand and holds it.
“Don’t move,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”
He is gone, again. My boy is gone. I have lost him a thousand times. He is waking me again and I am still crying. In my sleep I cry for him.
“I would have done anything to protect you,” I tell him.
“Shhh. Sylvie. It’s alright. We’re going to be alright.”
It’s Fred. His voice is somewhere above my head. The words vibrate into my ribs and up to my broken shoulder. He is on top of me, pinning me down. We are in the snow. We have fallen.
Phillip covers us with the afghan from our living room, the one Georgia knit in bold red and blue. The lights from the house spill onto the snow and stop just short of us. I still cannot see our Christmas star. Phillip shouts into his phone. But he is not Phillip. He is Daniel.
Snow is falling. Fred’s heart beats in my ear.
AMANDA BLOOM’s work appears in The Rumpus, The Offing, The Yale Review, matchbook, Storm Cellar, The Cardiff Review, and elsewhere. She received a Connecticut Artist Emerging Recognition Award for fiction in 2018 and is a fiction editor at the New Haven Review. Find her on Instagram at @bloomamanda, on Twitter at @bloomamanduhh, and at amandabloom.com.