You Can Coax a Dying Heart Back to Life

The delivery man, who is balding, whose face is as puffy as the freshly baked bread he carries in the back of his van, slows to let a woman in a winter-dirty Subaru turn in front of him. As she cuts past, heading off the main road toward the rural post office, their eyes meet. For a fleeting second, he wonders if she knows where he is going or why he has detoured from his normal route. Then her car pulls away, his van proceeds up the hill, and the moment passes.

As he drives by the big stone houses, the bare oak trees, the snow that has melted here and there to expose brown patches of rotting leaves, their ragged edges fluttering in the wind, he looks up at his face in the rear-view mirror. The woman’s quick glance has left him feeling accused. His face is flushed; in his reflection, his part is wide and pink, his thin hair springing out from it, shiny and a bit oily. Charlie Daniel’s voice blares from the radio. The warm van smells doughy, its cavernous bay stacked with freshly wrapped packages of English muffins, rye, pumpernickel, whole grain, and country white bread.

His last scheduled delivery of the day is the Stop & Shop on Route 7. But instead of going straight, he has turned left, as he has every Thursday at 4:00 p.m. for the past three months, onto Dogwood Lane. Then he makes another sharp left onto Marchers Road. Here the houses are smaller, most with vinyl siding in peach or pale yellow, colors that seem out of place in winter. Ahead, he sees Nelly’s house, next-to-the-last on the left, a small Colonial with a beige door. There are four front windows, two up and two down. On the door, a wreath of dried flowers mildews and wilts, and a snow-covered wooden windmill stands in the front yard, its arms frozen.

He parks the van, gets out, walks around to open the bay. Grabbing two packages of muffins, he senses but doesn’t see Nelly peeking out from behind a curtain. He begins to whistle and, as he walks to the door, lets his boots kick up last night’s dusting of snow. His heart drums so loudly in his chest he thinks the whole neighborhood might hear. But the other houses seem preoccupied, oblivious.

“Mrs. Amanado,” he says when the door opens, just in case someone might be eavesdropping.

“Joseph! Come in for a minute,” she says, looking out the door and up and down the street. She wears the blue pinstripe uniform of a nurse’s aide, thick white shoes and white stockings. Her name tag reads Nelly Amanado, CNA. Quietly she adds, “Good timing! I just got home.”

He steps past her into the living room. A small rag of a dog jumps up and down, straight-legged, and yaps at his trouser cuffs. From where Joseph stands, he can see into the dining room. A green parakeet climbs up and down inside its cage. Two knives, two napkins and two coffee saucers are set out on pink placemats; piled nearby, shoved to the table’s edge, are manila folders and a book, Clinical Guidelines for Nursing Assistants. A stethoscope curls next to the book. He takes all this in as Nelly accepts the muffin packages and helps him off with his jacket. She tucks the packages under her elbow and leads Joseph into her house.

This is always the moment when he thinks he might leave, take back the muffins and say he’s made a mistake, that he can’t risk his job for the sake of this affair. Besides, it’s too soon after his wife’s death, a long and horrible nightmare during which cancer invaded her bones, one by one, until there wasn’t anything left of her that Joseph recognized. He wants to say that he’s humiliated by his own reawakening, a capacity for desire that, he thought, had died long before his wife. But Nelly, as if she reads his mind, won’t let him get away. She pats his face, slides her hand over his hair, rubs her finger behind his ear and moves her face close to his.

“Joseph,” she says. “Let’s sit down and have a bite. Let’s talk. I want to tell you everything that’s happened since last week.”

She takes his hand and leads him to the chair, his chair, opposite the birdcage. While she goes into the kitchen, he sits on the edge of the seat and watches the parakeet hook its bill sideways through the cage bars, inching endlessly back and forth. He wants to find reasons to leave, some messiness or bad habits that might reveal themselves in Nelly’s tiny house―but the parakeet’s cage is spotless, the tablecloth is ironed smooth, embroidered strawberries entwined along the edges, and the house smells faintly of Clorox and Cashmere Bouquet soap, a scent that reminds him of Nelly’s skin, pink and fragrant, so unlike his wife’s, which was, at the end, thin and foul. He sees Nelly’s dog, Baby, now asleep on the sofa, and decides that even his intense dislike for the yappy animal is not reason enough to go. So he waits, eagerly, for the muffin he doesn’t really want and the conversation that Nelly insists upon before lying down with him in her bedroom.

“I started learning CPR today,” she calls from the kitchen. He hears the coffee pot burble, the toaster ding. Within seconds, the room smells like the inside of his van. “You want jelly?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer, resisting her—then feels childish when she pokes her round face out from the kitchen. “Jelly?”

“Sure, if you’re having,” he says. He reaches for one of Nelly’s books, lets it fall open. Inside are pictures of catheters and thermometers, photographs of an aide bathing an elderly woman and another of a nurse turning a man on his side while an aide washes him. This is what Nelly does every day, he thinks. She touches bodies. She might even have cared for his wife, Dot, a woman who, at his urging, had stopped working at her factory job years ago. After that, she watched TV, knitted hats for their one grandson, talked on the phone, and polished the furniture. Every night she made a big dinner and ironed Joseph’s work clothes, navy blue shirts with his name sewn in white stitches above the left pocket. Dutifully and delicately, she’d allow Joseph into her bed. After the cancer struck, Joseph stopped asking for that favor, even when Dot was having a good day. Expecting a woman with cancer to make love, he thought, was selfish. For the last few months, as the cancer spread, when he bent over to kiss Dot as she watched TV, she wouldn’t even lift her head or brush her lips against his cheek. Nevertheless, he loved her. He loved the oval of her aging face, her brown eyes, and her tiny hands that were always nervously doing something, even to the end: wiping flecks of shaving cream from his chin, fussing over his hair, buttoning his collar, then finally just folding and refolding the edge of her hospital sheet. He doesn’t love Nelly, he tells himself. Not yet. He can’t.

When she comes out of the kitchen balancing two full coffee cups, he straightens up and closes the book. He makes a gesture to help, but she settles the cups and hurries back to get the hot muffins, buttered and slathered with grape jelly. She puts sugar in his coffee and stirs it, chinking the spoon against the cup’s edge. Then she sits and they eat and drink, Nelly talking, her small teeth nipping at the muffin in between words.

“Before you start doing CPR, you have to check first to see if the patient is alive. You tip back their head and shake them and call them by their first name.” She takes a sip of coffee and waves her hand in the air to signal it’s too hot. Her fingers are short and puffy, and he imagines holding them. Dot’s fingers were long and slim, and when she was young she wore pale pink nail polish that shimmered in the light.

“What?” he asks.

“I said, you call patients by their first name because when someone is comatose, they never respond to their last name. Like if you were unconscious and someone called you ‘Mr. Deleo,’ you’d probably not pay attention. But if they yelled, ‘Joseph! Joseph,’ then you’d hear. It has something to do with childhood. Like who you really are.”

Joseph wonders who he really is. The man sitting here with Nelly, putting up with her chatter so he can take her to bed? Or the man who will go back to Queens at the end of the day, park the van and climb the front steps to a house smaller than Nelly’s where his dead wife’s picture watches him from the shelf and where he will sit down, alone, to eat dinner?

“Then, if the person doesn’t respond, you look to see if they’re breathing—”

“Who are you, Nelly?”

She laughs. “Joseph! You’re so funny. You know who I am. I’m your little nurse.”

He tells himself that one day the neighbors are going to report him to the company, that the supervisor will call him into the office and fire him, and that if they knew about Nelly, his grown children would turn away in disgust—he imagines them confronting him, saying, With Mom not even dead six months? He tells himself that if that happened he would have to explain to them that his secret visits to Nelly have nothing to do with sex; that there is, instead, something about Nelly, her kind face smiling at him the same loving way she might smile at her patients, that makes him want to stay.

He stands up.

“Don’t you want to finish your muffin?” she asks.

“I want to hold you,” Joseph says.

He likes the way Nelly dips her chin, fixes her small blue eyes on his face and draws her lips together. Joseph thinks of Dot, who undressed in the dark, whose breasts were small, the skin over them pale and transparent. He used to think that he didn’t deserve a woman like Dot, tall in her youth, slender and with an upswept hairdo that made her look like a movie star. Dot would have called a woman like Nelly ugly and coarse. Dot would have said that Nelly’s husband probably couldn’t stand living with her and so got a heart attack and died just to get away. Is that why Dot got cancer and died, Joseph wonders. Just to get away?

“Come with me, Joseph,” Nelly says.

She turns and he follows, trailing Nelly down the hall like his grandson use to follow Dot, anticipating the treat that might follow. Dot leads him into the bedroom where already the curtains have been drawn, the bed covers turned down. On the nightstand, a red candle gives off the scent of cinnamon. A bottle of lotion stands uncapped, waiting.

He takes off his clothes and watches as Nelly dances out of her uniform, pulling down the white pantyhose and untying her shoes, yanking the stockings over her feet. Her toenails are short and painted red. Her body is ample and dimpled, like the bodies of the patients in her clinical book, their flesh spreading over the white sheets. She fluffs the pillows, sits on the bed and pats the space beside her. “Come on,” she says. “Join me.”

Joseph, who is thin, whose muscles are flabby from lack of exercise, slides onto the bed and lies down next to her. His thighs are chapped and veiny. He feels the calluses on the bottom of his feet catch against the sheets.

“Turn over, Hon,” Nelly says, and reaches for the lotion.

When he’s facedown, she leans over him, the smell of her skin mingling with the candle’s sweet cinnamon. Joseph presses his cheek into the pillow, looking beyond the nightstand to the framed photos on her dresser: her husband, before his fatal heart attack, in a black suit and narrow tie, his body heavy and squat like Nelly’s, and a picture of Nelly in her pinstripe uniform with some other aides. Next to the photos, a row of tiny perfume bottles; blown glass dogs and birds perched on a mirror; a bottle of Robitussin. Everything about Nelly seems more familiar, somehow more comforting to him than the solitary flower-embroidered handkerchief that still covers his wife’s empty dresser. Why didn’t he ever think to buy Dot some glass figurines, maybe even a crystal candy dish?

Nelly leans into his back, massaging the skin alongside his spine, sliding her hands down, moving her hands under him. He marvels at the strength in Nelly’s tiny hands, and he imagines her rubbing patients’ backs, hoisting bodies up in bed, washing and touching them. He closes his eyes and remembers when he was young and had a whole lifetime ahead. He envies Nelly her chance to put her hands on people and save them. If only he too could have done—might still do—something that mattered.

Nelly lies back on the bed and opens her arms.

He lets himself become nothing but flesh and desire and, for a moment, he forgets his job, his loneliness, the feeling of total desolation that overtakes him every morning. But then, as always, once the act is finished he feels like crying. He wants Nelly to rock him in her arms, to kiss his face, to call him honey or sweetie pie.

She reaches over to grab tissues from the box, then for a moment, they lie together. She strokes his head and murmurs wordless sounds, petting him, he thinks, as if he were one of her patients, a patient who was afraid of something he couldn’t even name.

Instead of saying what he wants to say, I want you to take care of me forever, he says, “I guess I’d better get going.”

She turns on her elbow.

“Can’t you stay for more coffee?” she says. “Anyway, I didn’t finish telling you about CPR. First you have to check for a pulse.” She touches his neck. “Right here,” she says, pressing two fingers into his carotid artery.

Joseph rolls away, gets up, dresses. “I don’t know how you stand it. All those sick people.”

“We don’t learn CPR on real people. We practice on a dummy.” Nelly gets up. “Anyhow, you get used to it.”

Joseph ties his shoes in silence. Nelly puts on a flannel nightie and a robe.

“You’re going to bed this early?” he asks.

“What do I have to get dressed for?” She kisses him on the mouth.

Outside, the sky has clouded over. Up and down the street, lights are on in all the houses and the wind, gusty earlier, has died away. The little dog sleeps curled on the sofa and doesn’t notice Joseph about to leave.

“Wait,” Nelly says. “Don’t you want the other package of muffins?”

“No. Those are for you.” He hesitates at the door, feeling, for a few seconds, oddly separate from his body, as if he might leave it here with Nelly for safekeeping.

“I have to study tonight.” She gestures to the dining room table piled with papers. “Tomorrow we learn chest compressions.”

Joseph looks out at the van. A crust of frost has formed on the windshield. The white lawns and the gray pavement give the street a sort of dusky beauty. He wants to ask her what it was like for her when her husband died. He wants to tell her how Dot, in the hours before she died, opened her eyes and stared at him. And now the only time he can get that look out of his mind is when he’s with Nelly.

“You know,” she is saying, “once I learn chest compressions, if you ever have a heart attack, I’ll be able to save you. With chest compressions, you can coax a dying heart back to life.”

How long, Joseph wants to ask, does that take? He nods. “See you next week then?”

Nelly smiles. “Sure, Joe.”

He shrugs on his jacket and buttons it, turning the collar up against his neck. She kisses him again and smooths her palm against his hair. “You drive careful,” she says.

Joseph walks to the van without looking back. He scrapes his fingernails through the frost on the windshield, unlocks the door and gets in. Letting the engine idle for a minute, he sits watching the windshield wipers thump rhythmically back and forth, waiting for them to break up the ice and clear it away.

Cortney Davis, a Nurse Practitioner, is the author of Taking Care of Time (MSU Press, 2018), winner of the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize from Michigan State University; of Leopold’s Maneuvers (University of Nebraska Press, 2004), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry; and of Details of Flesh (Calyx Books, 1997). Her memoirs include When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images, The Heart’s Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing (both from The Kent State University Press, 2015 and 2009), and I Knew a Woman: The Experience of the Female Body (Random House, 2001). Her poems, essays and fiction have appeared in journals including Poetry, The Hudson Review, Superstition Review, Descant, Sun, Bellevue Literary Review, Crazyhorse, Poetry East, Sentence, Underground Voices, Witness, Rattle, The Antigonish Review, and others. She is the recipient of an NEA Poetry Fellowship, three CT Commission on the Arts Poetry Grants, the CT Center for the Book Award and an Independent Publisher’s Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal. Cortney is the poet laureate of Bethel, CT.

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