A History of Heart Disease
Amber Sparks

Glen's father dies in a Burger King. Glen is only five and he has to watch his father's big hands fumbling at his necktie, then pushing over paper cups, plastic straws, finally even people on his way to the floor. Since Glen is only five, he laughs at first because he thinks his father is clowning, is joking around with him like he always does.  He laughs and laughs until a fat lady in purple stretch pants leans over his father and starts screaming. 

When Glen is thirty he is handsome and married, with a little girl and a Golden Retriever named Betsy. He teaches high school kids about rocks and soil. His wife likes to tell him that his head is full of rocks, which is more or less true.

Glen and his wife are having what they refer to as 'marital problems.' She has gained seventy pounds in the last three years. Seventy pounds! Glen cannot understand it. He knows he's an asshole, but Glen hates the way his body sinks into hers, how her new stomach is soft and unformed. He feels like he's screwing the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Glen was an athlete in school. He was golden and fast, and everyone wanted to be him or be with him. He still runs every morning and now he coaches the high school track team. His wife refers to him as "Jock," or sometimes "the Jock." He is never sure if this is a compliment or not.

One day after track practice, he is teaching a girl named Jenny the right way to wrap a sprain and the phone rings. It is his wife.

"Glen," she says, "your mother's dead." 

"When?" he says.  "How?"

"Just a few hours ago," she tells him, "at the Wal-Mart over in Westchester."

"Not where," says Glen, "how?"

"Oh, sorry—heart attack—she was buying paper towels, I guess. Or at least, that was the only thing in her cart." Glen is prepared for this. He has been prepared a long time, ever since his father died. He doesn't laugh. He doesn't disbelieve. He sighs and sends Jenny home and picks his daughter up from daycare. 

"Grandma's heart wasn't very strong," he tells her.  "It was a good heart, but it wasn't very strong." 

His daughter is three and solemn as a poet. She nods, though she doesn't understand. She watches cartoons and always equates good with strong. She doesn't have the capacity to undo metaphors. Glen should really know better, but then Glen has never really been good with children. He's better with dogs. He's better with rocks.

It's probably a good thing, then, that eventually Glen's wife and daughter leave him, after he is caught with Jenny in the teacher's lounge. Glen could blame his idiocy on his fear of getting old, of growing up and dying young. It's what people do in the Tyler family. But he doesn't blame anyone except himself. His wife and the judge blame him, too.

Glen gets fired and divorced and charged and convicted. He has to pay a lot of money and spend half the year at a workhouse. Then he goes to live with his brother Peter in San Antonio. He has to leave the Golden Retriever behind, and his small daughter is unwilling to speak to him—at least, that's what his wife says. Ex-wife says.

Peter is married to a woman named Nanette. Nan is right out of a novel, dressed in peasant skirts and stilettos with teased, Texas-sized hair. She smokes long, thin cigarettes and is always rolling her eyes at everything Peter says. But she's pretty and small and Glen lies awake at night and listens to her squealing "Ooh, Peter, ooh, Peter," while the bedposts scrape and thump against the floor.

Peter is a teacher, too. Nan works from home; she makes jewelry and sells it online. Beaded turquoise stuff that Glen's wife would call 'tacky.'  He likes the way it lies cool against Nan's warm brown skin, swinging away from her collarbone as she navigates the listings and helps Glen try to find a job. It's difficult enough to find work these days, never mind the felony conviction on his record.  

Then there's a day when the phone rings; it's the school, for Nan. Peter's had a heart attack. They've taken him to the hospital, and Nan drives Glen there, fast. She is a terrific driver, like an FBI agent in a movie car chase scene. 

Glen watches Nan cry onto Peter's hospital gown. "I told him to drink more wine, the stupid fool," she wails. "Red wine is good for the heart, that's what I told him."  

At the funeral several people ask where Peter's parents are. Glen tells them he is the only one left. Glen's ex-wife is at the funeral, too, with his daughter. He hugs his daughter tight and sits her on his lap; and while her mother glares at him, she allows the little girl to stay there throughout the service. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't Peter," his ex-wife keeps saying. "Peter was a much better person than you."

Nan wears a black lace skirt, like a widow in a Western, and she cries into a handkerchief and everything. Without her, the service would have no dignity at all.  The priest speaks in a dry Texan drawl, and Peter's students chew gum and flap their programs and talk in whispers that bounce off the church walls. 

His daughter puts her little hand in his sweaty palm. Glen lets it lie there, limp, until Nan reaches over and closes his hand around the child's. She smiles at him around the handkerchief, and smears her mascara with the back of her other hand. Glen feels the warmth of his daughter's hand, like a damp little bird, feels the life ticking and nudging against his own.

Amber Sparks has stories in or coming from New York Tyrant, The Collagist, matchbook, Necessary Fiction, Annalemma and others.

To link to this story directly: http://wigleaf.com/201001history.htm

Detail of illustration on main page courtesy of r8r.

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