Isaac Birchmier was born in Mountain Home, Idaho and raised in Helena, Montana. He has been published in The Lunaris Review, Sidereal Journal, The Oval, theEEEL, The Commonline Journal, 101 Words, cattails, Word of Absence, Eternal Remedy, Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog, Funny in Five Hundred, and Short-Story.me.
Even the Heartless Have Hearts
Pacemaker active. Heart Rate: 65 BPM. Working the legs. This is made possible because of the blood flow through the heart. The body gets oxygenated because blood cells contain and carry oxygen. The meat of the heartbeat is called the QRS complex: the bum of the ba-bum. Each beat has two segments, two complexes, and an interval. Five steps. Eighty times per minute. Always moving. The P-wave is the infant: the birth of the heartbeat. The T-wave is the final, the “relaxation.” (The heart pulses; the body pulsates. The body is the heart. Vice-versa.) Atrial contraction, ventricular contraction, relaxation. Beginning, middle, end. Beginning, middle, end. Beginning, middle--
At a young age I found a fascination with the heart, the center of being.
It all goes back to the first time I saw a Shakespeare play with my parents at the local theater. I had never seen a play before and I found the dramatic ways the actors moved onstage to be silly. In Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo & Juliet Romeo asks a question which has stuck with me since: “Did my heart love till now?” I didn’t understand it. It confused me for months afterward. The line claimed that the heart was the source of love, the source of emotion, but when I looked at symbols of the heart it seemed like it could never be capable of harboring such intensities. At school we were sometimes given assignments to cut a dual symmetry of connected teardrops out of pink construction paper, and that was what we called the heart. And I thought: Ah, so that’s the heart: a mirrored teardrop.
However, on the couch one day I was sitting, watching Animal Planet, bored out of my wits, when I saw an African shaman rip open the chest of a live frog and show its still-throbbing organ to the camera, and I sat with my socks and feet resting on the coffee table, mouth wide, the reflection of the TV in my pupils, as the British narrator said “The Shaman then carries the toad to the village before its heart stops beating. This unlucky toad will soon be added as an active ingredient in the Shaman’s special stew.”
The frog’s heart was hideous.
My interest in hearts skyrocketed after that. I couldn’t be stopped. I read Emily Dickinson (“The heart wants what it wants.”), I learned what the etymology behind the word heart was (from the Old English heorte, from the Proto-Germanic herton: a cognate of Saxon, Frisian, Gothic, and German variations), I learned from medical journals all the histories of attempted transplants and artificial organs — bellowing an impassioned cri de coeur as I searched for anything heart-related.
I learned the names of every famous cardiologist there ever was: Barnard, Yacoub, Kantrowitz, Lillehei. (And Lillehei in particular.)
At age thirteen I got kicked out of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Northridge, L.A. — Northridge being where I have lived in my whole life. I used to sneak in, small as I was, to inspect the ECG machines. The undulating spikes held me rapt with attention. When my father was later admitted for congestive heart failure I was given greater access to the machines without having another incident where the authorities were involved. It was a bittersweet moment, my father’s admittance.
“Bailey, promise me one thing,” my father said on his deathbed, waving me to come near him, “work on this passion for hearts that you have;” (he had been the one who, confusedly, bought me medical dictionaries when I begged him) “maybe you can end up saving a live or two someday.”
My father’s words of advice aside, I already knew my destiny. It was clear-cut: laid out in front of me in small jeweled intervals (I was an intelligent and ambitious kid); yet, his words were endearing. My father let me watch the ECG of his heart and let me read the books, and each time I connected the dots my heart skipped a beat, and as my heart kept up, my father’s stopped working.
My wife Leslie is six years my junior. I met her at a social function three years back called the Cardiac Arrest. It was in the house of Dr. Nugent (no relation) and was, as is to be expected, cardiology-themed. Leslie Greening, the daughter of prominent cardiologist Luke Greening, was invited for her namesake alone.
At the Cardiac Arrest were a number of ornamental decorations hung from the walls: anatomically-accurate hearts, cardboard cutouts of ECG spikes, a punch bowl with atrium and ventricle spouts, red streamers. A soothing ambient soundtrack incorporating the sounds of heartbeats played from the speakers situated above the stained glass windows. The chandeliers — two of them — hanging from the roof, were fitted with red lightbulbs, which casted a thin shade of coronary crimson throughout the room, as if through a filter. Streamers hung venous from the ceilings. The room was crowded with high-level diagnosticians, surgeons, and innovators in their respective fields. Baroque patterns with a beautified symmetry passed through the paper on the walls. Famous people from around the globe participated in this fascinating meeting: incredible: Gatsbyesque.
Old doctors — even older than Bailey — sat in these hardwood chairs situated in the far corners of the room where the bodies must be kept. Like corpses in the mortuary, sitting in their respective slots.
Sans floral decorations.
Laughing, articulating, coddling.
“A drag, eh?” I replied to Brace Jameson, a long-time friend of mine.
“It’s because they’re all so old,” he said sardonically. “That youthful vigor and impulsivity is gone. Our libidos aren’t what they once were — we can’t direct that energy to our pursuits.” Jameson looked around himself and saw the people shuffling away, avoiding him like the plague. The space around him became sparse within a matter of seconds. He returned his sights back to me, snarling.
“You need to be more quiet when you talk about things like that,” I said.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Jameson said. “What did you want to be when you were a kid?”
“A cardiologist,” I said.
He looked at me and laughed. “You’re something else, Walton.” He sipped from his fruit punch, his teeth and lips stained like a tiger having assailed its prey.
“I want you to know that I don’t belong here,” he said out of the blue, “with these people. I’ve been doing operations for too long. Dealing with the sterility. It’s dehumanizing.”
“You do breast reduction surgery, Jameson.”
“Yeah, and I’ve been disillusioned. They’re nothing but ‘mammaries’ now: unstimulating. It loses the appeal. When you’ve cut into a breast — removed the fatty substance — you stop feeling for the item as a whole. They don’t have that magical appeal any more.”
“What,” he said, “isn’t the human body less intriguing from the outside now that you’re so familiar with all the organs?”
“Not really. I still have the primal urge; I just need a boost every now and then.”
“Bailey, you’re thirty-three.”
We looked at each other.
Jameson smiled at me in that same way, thinking he knew something I didn’t. It let him believe he had an edge over me: some people need that: a fundamental temperament of theirs requires them to feel superiority.
While he stood there, smug, I looked about and saw all the prominent figures of my day engaging in relevant threads of discussion based on whichever field they were in — much of it having to do with cardiology- or research-based fields of study. Spotlights above the chandeliers created stripes of blue and red along the ballroom floor. Most of the people were in the center of the room, whereas Jameson and I stood at the sides. In the back left quadrant (Q2) there were games being played relevant to heart health and cardiology. There were flirtatious activities between the married couples of “reading” heartbeats and a game where they hid a small heart toy somewhere on their body and the other partner had to find it. (The party organizers originally had the idea of an anatomically-correct heart-shaped piñata, but later decided against it, deeming the existence of aorta and ventricles on a destructible object “in poor taste.”)
“I’d like you to meet someone,” Jameson said.
I laughed and called him an old dog. He led me with his palm against my back to the other side of the room where a shapely young woman stood gazing out the window and he said her name and she heard him and he caught her attention and she turned around and as her eyes fell on me I froze in place.
Leslie couldn’t find Bartholomeu. No matter where she checked, the Retriever just couldn’t be found. “Bart!” she yelled out the patio door. “Bart?” No answer. Bailey would no doubt be upset. Leslie felt herself overcome with worry and fear. Bartholomeu was his pride and joy — Bailey’s answer to a lifelong decision not to have kids, and though Leslie sometimes felt like she would like to someday have children of her own, she ultimately agreed with the “overpopulation” arguments he presented.
But where was Bart? She went to bed and he was there and when she woke up he was gone. She called the neighbors.
“Did you by chance see a dog run by your house this morning?”
And she tried the humane society.
“Do you have a Golden Retriever there with a dogtag that says ‘Bart’ on it?”
“A dogtag that says ‘Bark’?”
But to no avail. She caved under the realization that Bailey’s dog was officially “missing,” and she would need to tell him about it. It was 10:47 A.M. and Bailey got on his lunchbreak at 12:15 P.M. — if he wasn’t in the middle of intensive surgery.
Reluctantly she opened the door to the Galant and turned the key.
The automatic doors parted and Leslie made a beeline to the front desk. The attendant greeted her cordially. Leslie asked if she could speak with Bailey.
“Mr. Walton is performing open-heart surgery,” said the desk attendant. “You’ll have to wait until the operation is over before you can see him.”
“But I’m his wife.”
“The reason nobody — not even close partners of the doctor — can enter the operating room while open-heart surgery is being performed is because the operating room must at all times be a sterile, clean—”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” Leslie walked over to the bench seated nearest the door to the E.R. and cupped her face in her hands, waiting. She stared up at the clock, 11:49, and wondered how Bailey would take the news about Bartholomeu. If he knew Bart had run off, how would he react? He would no doubt be upset. Bailey loved Bart. He was bound to be upset by the news. She sat there, staring incredulously up at the ceiling.
But something caught her attention.
What was she witnessing?
Bailey Walton, a blonde woman hooked in his arm, passed from the doorframe. The blonde woman was dressed in a skimpy skirt and top. She laughed at something he said, jiggling silicone.
Attached to the leash on Bailey’s waist was — none other than — Bartholomeu?
Leslie sat there watching them pass by, dumbfounded.
The world around her goes silent. She spends the next three hours on unconscious autopilot. One minute it’s twelve, the next it’s three. The trunk is full of groceries. She takes them handful by handful. As she begins searching for refrigeratable items she hears the familiar rumble of Bailey’s Toyota Tundra. As the engine comes to a halt from the garage she pretends to be busy. The garage door opens and she sees from her periphery Bailey, moving methodically, back postured, in his doctoral garb, reading something on his tablet. Bart appears suddenly, tail wagging, and jumps on Leslie.
Smiling sincerely at Bartholomeu she pats him on the head. But she has no idea what to say. Who was the woman Bailey was with? Why did Bailey ignore her? Bart scampers happily away, nails clambering slipping against tile. Why did Bailey take Bart to work? Who was that woman? She knew the answer to none of these and yet understood she needed to say something to Bailey quick, to break the silence. The first thing that came to mind:
“How was work?”
“Good. We did an artificial transplant.”
Leslie, behind the counter, takes produce from the plastic bags and places them into their respective compartments. From a reflection in a pickle jar she can still see Bailey standing at the head of the stairs, swiping his tablet.
“So,” Leslie starts, nonchalantly, “it wasn’t stressful at all?” She turns her head from the fridge to look back at him. His attention is still diverted at the tablet.
“Of course,” he says, “but I can’t let it affect me. I’m in the middle of a high-risk situation. A person’s life is on the line,” he says emotionlessly. “You can’t let the nerves get the best of you.” Sounds almost rehearsed. “Everyone feels ’em.”
She nods her head in stunted agreement.
Pacemaker slowing. Heartbeat: 58 BPM. Nearly that of an athlete. I am Bailey Thomas Walton, son of Thomas Jonah Walton. My heart’s beats are torrential and superfluous. I improve as time goes on. Within the heart’s pandemonium of waves I see and feel firsthand the sharp cold of wind and the blazing of volcanoes. In my heart I have scaled slate cliffs. I have met adversity and succumbed then overcome. I have found in the center of a world made of ice the most lukewarm of temperate climes.
The sun’s rays ricochet off only the lateral coordinates on which I stand.
My heart carries with it the histories of turmoil: hunger: the strike of passion.
In each pump of blood comes the electricity of survival: the desire of existence: the vastness of time: the histories of man.
The axioms of life are heard in the rhythm of each heartbeat. Clockwork. Depictions of love and purpose through the most lucid communication we know how.
A crackle of sparks: a burning of flame: a softness.
I round the corner, jogging.