From WTP Vol. VI #2
A Different Kind of Heart Attack
By Elle Napolitano
2017 Honorable Mention for the Literary
Enda knew the Hy-Vee like the back of her hand and she maneuvered her cart purposefully up and down the aisles. It was summer, a withering hot August, and she only wanted to get in and out fast that morning, did her level best not to make eye contact with the other shoppers. Just when she thought she was home free, there was their neighbor Ray, aiming his cart in her direction.
“Mrs. O’Fallan, hello!” Ray called out. “I’m glad I ran into you! Darndest thing,” he said straight off, “someone or something took my Nikes right off my porch. I took them off after a long run and went inside to shower. When I came out, poof! They were gone.”
Ray was training for a marathon and nearly every day Enda saw him plodding along in the heat, up and down the county roads. He pointed down at the battered shoes he was wearing. “These are my back-ups,” he said.
Enda clucked sympathetically. “My,” she said, “that’s terrible.”
But she had a strange feeling. That summer, and if Enda had to guess, she would say it was right around the time the moose was seen in town and the Mexican kid was rescued from Henry Bright’s grain bin, she began to find things stashed in her husband’s barn. Some of the things she found were inconsequential; a brittle red plastic basket from Mabel’s, a pinwheel from the flower box outside the hardware store. Other items were more valuable but still affordable if Dally-Boy had wanted them: a vial of saffron she recognized from the small cooking supply shop, for example, and a small leather notebook from the stationery store. But there was also the dog collar that should have been on Sparky, the springer spaniel belonging to another neighbor. Something told her she would find Ray’s shoes in the barn now too. Well, it had been a bloody hot summer and strange things had happened; the moose, and the poor kid in the grain bin.
From her handbag, came the bloop sound she’d been waiting for, a message from Bobbi Russo, finally answering her text.
“I’ve got to answer this,” she told Ray, holding up her cell phone, “I do hope your running shoes turn up.”
She’d been trying all morning to reach Bobbi, who she hoped would help her plan a benefit supper for Dally-Boy’s young cousin coming over from Ireland. Earlier she had sent Bobbi an email and after a few minutes, she called and left a voice message.
“Where are you?” she’d finally texted peevishly, because it really was unlike Bobbi not to respond. “How about meeting me for lunch?” she added.
Bobbi suggested they meet at Sully’s, an unusual choice, out there on the far edge of town as it was, and not one of their usual lunch spots. But in fact Enda had been planning to ask Young Sully to donate the back room for the benefit supper, so Bobbi’s motion to lunch at Sully’s was prescient. With any luck Enda would have the benefit supper venue wrapped up by the end of the day.
“I’m about to tell you two things about my husband that I think you will find shocking,” said Bobbi. They were sitting at a table at Sully’s with a bowl of pretzels between them. Bobbi had gotten there first and had ordered them each a tall glass of pale ale instead of their usual tea.
Enda’s face wrinkled with concern and she impulsively reached for Bobbi’s hand. “Good God, what is it?” she said, “I knew something was wrong.”
Bobbi pointed to Enda’s glass of beer, “Drink some of that first,” she said and waited while Enda gulped and swallowed. Of the two of them, Bobbi was the extrovert, chatty, and with a quick laugh, if shrill at times. They had both weathered the menopause and were left with changed bodies, Bobbi with a small round belly like a cantaloupe half and Enda with twenty extra pounds of fat all over, that she pictured just beneath her skin, just like a roasting-chicken. Bobbi’s arms and legs were very thin, burning calories round the clock, Enda supposed, running around here and there and talking with everyone she saw.
“Number one,” said Bobbi, “for the past twenty years Russ has been carrying on with Ann, our accountant. Number two, he has end-stage colon cancer, which has metastasized hither and yon, and probably won’t live another month.”
Enda’s mouth fell open. “Drink,” Bobbi said again, nodding at Enda’s glass of beer.
Then Bobbi proceeded to say that she had learned both these facts herself when Ann (the mistress!) telephoned her to say that Russ had suddenly and violently soiled himself in his pick-up truck while idling in her driveway. There was an unspeakable mess of body fluids all over the upholstery. He refused an ambulance, but something was very wrong.
“So I drive over there, and Ann,” Bobbi spat the woman’s name out, “brings out a blanket and a few large garbage bags. We pass them into the truck to Russ, who will not look me in the eye, and he manages to get his clothes off and stuff them into the bags. Then he wrapped the blanket around himself the best he could and hobbled into Ann’s house straight into the bathroom.”
“My God,” said Enda clapping one hand over her mouth.
“Make no mistake,” said Bobbi, “this is what makes a marriage a tragedy.”
“Cripes, Bobbi,” said Enda.
“You said it,” said Bobbi, “so I had to stand there in the hallway with Ann and listen to Russ sob in her shower, his last shred of dignity gone.” Bobbi took a big swig of her beer and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I felt sorry for him Enda, you know? Humiliating himself that way.”
“Cripes,” Enda said again. About the only thing she had ever noticed over the years about Ann was that she dressed too formally for the Russo’s annual backyard barbecues, with her skirts and silky tops and sandals instead of jeans with a t-shirt and gym shoes or boots like everyone else. Ann was in her forties now and still wore sleeveless silk blouses during the summer months, her jiggly arm flab on exhibit for all to see. She had never married, but had grown middle-aged, waiting, Enda now knew, waiting for Russ.
“Bobbi,” she said, “What happened next? I mean at Ann’s house.”
“Oh, we listened to him blubber and shuffle around in the bathroom for a while and Ann tells me that she ‘shares my concern for him.’ Can you imagine?”
“What did you say?” asked Enda, scandalized and absolutely riveted.
“I said, ‘Well since you took a share of everything else in my marriage, why shouldn’t you share my concern too?’”
Enda suddenly wanted to laugh. But Bobbi’s face was hard and defiant and so she held it in.
“She left me standing there in her hallway,” Bobbi continued, “and I heard her opening and closing doors in another room. She came back with a clean set of Russ’s clothes—apparently, he kept a whole other wardrobe in her closet. I helped him get dressed and got him into my car and drove him to the hospital.” Bobbi did smile then, and she leaned forward and gripped Enda’s hand hard. “I left Ann’s ‘share’ there in the driveway, the shat-in pick-up truck. I think it’s still there,” she added with a strident bark of laughter, “four days now, in this heat.”
Enda was thinking that nothing in this life could surprise her anymore. But Russ cheating on Bobbi with his accountant? Bobbi had not once said a word about her marriage being disharmonious.
“Want to know how I knew something was up?” continued Bobbi, “with Russ and Ann?”
“How?” said Enda, hoping she didn’t appear too eager.
“It was twenty years ago. I remember because it was Mother’s Day, and the last time he said he loved me.”
Enda shook her head. An impetuous glow was building within her, spurring the idea that she needed to put something into motion. This was the afternoon beer of course, but the feeling that she needed to take a bold stand in her own life was true and clear. “Twenty years. Think of that,” she said to Bobbi.
“There was something else,” said Bobbi, “something I believe every woman in my situation will recognize.”
Enda nervously plucked a pretzel out of the basket and bit down on it with her front teeth, scattering salt across the table.
Bobbi continued, “Russ began to say things that did not sound like him. Things like, ‘what does all that talking help you avoid in your life, Bobbi? Talk, talk, talk. People who talk all the time are avoiding something in themselves.’ Now I ask you,” Bobbi said, chin jutted forward, “Does that sound like something Russ would come up with on his own?”
Enda was already shaking her head. “No, it most certainly does not,” she agreed. She swallowed another mouthful of beer and looked at Bobbi hard. “Bobbi?” she said, “Dally-Boy has never told me he loves me. Not once, not ever.”
And then, even though she should have been the one comforting Bobbi, Enda began to talk about herself. Later she wondered what had come over her, what had made her divulge such deeply held secrets. But then again (she told herself), if we don’t hear our stories told out loud in our own voices, no matter how one-sided and misremembered, how would we ever understand our lives, let alone face death someday?
And so she told Bobbi about the gold ring with two tiny diamonds she had found among Dally’s belongings. She had been a young bride when she found the ring in a bureau, tucked into a leather pouch and rolled up in a tattered shirt he must have worn as a boy in Ireland. There were other items rolled into the shirt as well; a rock, train ticket stubs, and an article cut out from the Dublin papers about how the women in the Magdalene laundries made the lace christening outfit for the Kennedy baby.
Remembering that first year of marriage, how greedy she had been for that ring, made her underarms tingle. Nowadays she looked at the ring only occasionally, just to see if it was still there. But back in her younger days, she often took it out of the pouch and tried it on. “One Friday while Dally was at work, I wore that ring the entire day,” Enda told Bobbi wistfully. “I felt like someone in a television commercial.” Daringly, she had even worn the ring to the dime store where she bought a small bottle of pink nail polish. When she returned home she sat herself down and painted her nails. Enda tipped her head back remembering. “And then I took a nap there in the sun on the good sofa, as if I were Queen for the Day.”
Bobbi hooted and lifted her glass. “Queen for the Day,” she said.
What Enda did not tell Bobbi was that she had slept for hours that day, and barely returned the ring to the pouch before Dally-Boy walked in the door. For dinner she served him scrambled eggs and beans and made up a story about not being able to get the gas stove to light in time to cook a full and proper meal. He took his seat at the kitchen table and regarded her silently, his tongue thrust into his lower lip, a warning sign she knew well. Then, of course, he got up and tried the knobs on the stove and oven and all of them hissed and ignited, as they should.
When he returned to the table, Dally slapped her across the face. Afterward he sat down in the chair abruptly, forcing a gasp of air out of the plastic cushion as if to say, that was that. Mother of heaven, she prayed that night, teach me how to hope as if I were not razed.
Bobbi finished the last of her beer and put her glass firmly on the table. Young Sully looked over and she looped one finger in the air to indicate they would have another round.
“Not for me,” called Enda, whose high blood pressure limited her to one alcoholic beverage a day. Funny, she always believed it would be Dally-Boy—who ate foolishly and never saw a doctor—who would go first, probably of a heart attack, his big chest silent as an empty birdcage. But between her high blood pressure and pre-diabetes, maybe it would be her.
Though she couldn’t have said why, Enda understood that Dally-Boy’s secret ring was related to the things hidden in the barn, things that did not belong to him, things he had stolen. “There is something about that ring,” she said to Bobbi, “and the newspaper clipping about the laundries in Ireland—terrible places—women locked up, newborn babies given away. That ring has pre-destined my life, without my consent or participation.”
Young Sully brought Bobbi’s beer and she ordered hamburgers for both of them. “What scheme are you two ladies hatching over here?” he asked. Young Sully had come to the United States from Ireland seventy years ago. It was his father who had been known as Old Sully.
Bobbi said, “Enda here is planning a benefit dinner for Dally-Boy’s young cousin. We’d like to use the place if you’ll have us.”
“The cousin won the Irish green card lottery,” Enda offered.
“Jesus the genius!” Young Sully boomed. “That’s the only way to do it these days, isn’t it?”
When Sully had left them alone again, Enda brushed at the salt scattered on the table. “What will you do now?” she asked Bobbi.
Bobbi drained her beer glass and set it down with a thunk. “I’m going to help you with your benefit dinner and see what the doctors have in mind for Russ and his cancer. After that, I don’t know. My life is suddenly very strange to me.”
That evening, Enda brought home a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store for dinner. She was standing at the kitchen sink staring out the window when he wandered in, looking for his supper. “Are you feeling ill?” he asked.
“What I’d like to know,” Enda said, still looking out the window, “is if you knew about Ann and Russ, all these years?”
Dally pulled a chair out at the kitchen table. “So you’ve talked with Bobbi.”
Enda said, “You know about the cancer too?”
Dally said something surprising then, something that Enda would think about the rest of her life, especially when what happened later, happened. He said, “Loneliness, Enda, is a very real thing, like homesickness. And people do get sick from it. They do get sick from it.”
The next week, Dally-Boy visited Russ Russo at the hospital.
“Hell of a mess I’m in,” Russ said in a rasping voice.
Bobbi had warned Dally-Boy that Russ’s cancer had run amuck in his body, taking its toll, gobbling up his insides and reducing his limbs to fragile sticks. But when had his friend become this frail scarecrow before him now, all angled and knobby beneath the bed sheet? How does a person’s body sneak away on them so suddenly?
Russ weakly lifted one hand. “Will you tell Ann I’m sorry about all of this?”
“Shall I bring her for a visit?” asked Dally.
Russ shook his head. “Bobbi…” he said, and Dally understood that either Bobbi wouldn’t allow it, or Russ himself thought it wasn’t a good idea. Russ took a shallow breath and said, “All my cards are on the table, my dirty laundry aired.”
“Well,” said Dally. “You know,” he started and then stopped and started again. “You know, I’m going to tell you something unbelievable about myself, put my cards on the table too.”
Russ looked at Dally with curiosity shining in his eyes, a bit of the old Russ.
“I’ll just say it outright,” Dally said, “I’m a goddamned illegal alien.”
Russ scrunched his forehead. He had known Dally-Boy forty years or more and had never wondered about Dally’s citizenship, even when the old gang had talked about it at Mabel’s just a month ago, the same day the Mexican kid got rescued from the corn silo and a moose, of all things—likely a Minnesotan that wandered too far south—strolled right down Main Street.
Dally nodded. “I know what you think; you think I immigrated properly.” He collected his thoughts, wondering where to start. “I came over here on an airplane when the Kennedys moved into the White House, God bless ‘em. Believe me, how I got the money together for that plane ticket is something I’ll be explaining to Saint Peter before I enter the pearly gates.”
Russ blinked his eyes.
Dally continued, “No, I’m not particularly proud about how I got the money to come over to America and make a fresh start of things.” He took in a large breath and let it out slowly. “You see I robbed some people, on the docks in Galway. They were strolling, hoity-toity in their fine shoes and linen clothes. All I could think about was that America was out there, at the other edge of the Atlantic.”
Russ opened his eyes wide, “tell me more,” they said.
Dally leaned forward his bushy eyebrows formidable things, looming in Russ’s near vision. “About the other part, about being illegal, you see my visa was to travel, just to travel. I was meant to go back. Only I never did. And that makes me a goddamned illegal alien.”
Russ lifted his hand slightly again, “Enda?” he whispered.
Dally nodded, “Oh, she’s American you know and we’re legally married so I was eligible for the green card. But I never applied for it. Couldn’t be arsed about it after they shot Kennedy. Truth is, I left a girl behind in Ireland and I always thought I’d get back to her. There now, that’s my dirty laundry.”
Russ’s eyes sparkled and his lips stretched across empty gums. Oh he had an enormous laugh caught within himself, laying there listening to Dally-Boy, his old buddy, this larger-than-life, ruddy-skinned, foul-mouthed, Irish friend of his, with brown bits of teeth and something rotten in his breath, his mottled nose like the posterior of a plucked chicken, his greasy hair combed back, still dark and thick with rakish bits of grey, his eyebrows wiry and unkempt, with dry bits of skin and food (food!) caught in them, like two mustaches misplaced on his forehead. Dally-Boy his friend with his belching and farting, his bloviate opinions about politics, pot holes, and Republicans, of hippies, women, and the Internet, of ISIS and North Korea and don’t let him get started about the grotesqueness of that fat fuck in the White House. Yes, inside his dying self, Russ Russo roared with laughter.
In Irish, Enda’s name means bird and in the last few years of their marriage, Dally-Boy called her Birdy. At first she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Birdy, a trivial, thin-boned, flighty thing. But over time she became fond of the nickname. Once, while watching a hawk soar over the cornfields she said out loud, “Birdy,” and from that point on she equated her nickname with the ability to rise above, to see everything as it really was.
The evening of the benefit dinner, Dally-Boy was a no-show, and when Enda couldn’t reach him by phone, her first thought was that he’d finally had his heart attack. She left Bobbi at Sully’s, in charge at the benefit, which was successful enough—money raised, a community showing the best of itself—and drove home. She felt, what? Not dread nor fear, but steadiness and a matter-of-factness she knew would hold her in place, would keep her grounded to earth for as long as she was needed.
Just the usual lights on the porch were on at the house when she pulled up, but a taxi idled in the driveway. She went in through the kitchen door and Dally-Boy appeared in the hallway wearing his good suit. Enda looked him over with some relief. “Who died?” she asked. Then she saw the suitcase behind him and that in one hand he clutched a shiny green flyer with colorful scenes on the cover and a picture of an airplane taking off.
“I’ve had the best of America; yer Barack Obama,” Dally-Boy said, looking around the kitchen, “and all of this.” He was returning to Ireland, was leaving her, possibly for good, though that is not what he said. What he did say was, “The house is yours Birdy. You’ll be grand on your own.”
Years later when Enda would tell the story of that summer and of the night Dally-Boy went home to Ireland, she always said that she believed it would be a heart attack that would take him away. And then she would say, “But it was Ireland, a different kind of heart attack all together.”
In 2017 Elle Napolitano had her first piece of short fiction, “Mo,” published in Void Magazine (Dublin, Ireland). That same year, her story “The Universe Can Be An Asshole” was short-listed for the Reynolds Price International Award for Fiction, and another story titled “On Any Monday” short-listed for the Glimmer Train short story award for new writers.