John Michael Cummings' short stories have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007, and his novella "The House of My Father" was a finalist in the 2006 Miami University Novella Contest. His first novel, The Night I Freed John Brown, is forthcoming from Philomel Books (Penguin Group), May 2008. He lives in New York with his wife, Susan, and their cat, Sentry.
"Rosie, is that you finally?" Mrs. Vincent called down the spiral staircase that sat in the middle of the Vincent living room like a giant museum exhibit of a double helix.
Down the woman came, curling down and around, down and around, her hand gliding over the glossy white handrail, the skinny corkscrew frame of the staircase making the slightest shimmy. Rosie, standing front and center, readied herself with a battery of prepared answers.
"There you are," said her mother, twirling down to earth and swishing her silky nightgown across the floor—stopping suddenly. "Oh, Rosie, dear, you look awful!"
Her daughter looked all the more disheveled in the Aloha-style lighting of the Vincent home—funky lighting her mother had insisted on. Large silver lanterns, as big and round as five-gallon buckets, stood eight feet off the floor on faux-rusted posts that bowed together midway like curtsying legs. Down blasted great quantities of scathing light that, in passing through the stick-like steel balusters of the spiral staircase, raked groove-like shadows across the purple pile carpeting. It was the kookiest decor for an otherwise traditional, multi-family suburban Virginia executive home with champagne walls and five grand worth of mahogany dentil cornice in each of the 14 rooms.
"What have you been doing?" Her mother wanted to know. "You look like you've been romping around on the ground." She came closer. "Have you been crying?"
"How's daddy, mom?"
Mrs. Vincent crossed her arms.
"Rosie, where have you been and why didn't you pick up your messages?"
"Mom, Daddy, remember?"
"They're keeping him overnight for observation. Where, young lady?"
Rosie's sister Erin, who had come out of her father's study, stood leaning her mermaid figure against the door frame, giving Rosie a long, disapproving look. Even at 11 o'clock on a Saturday night, during a family crisis, she looked perfectly put together and ready for the situation, still wearing the day's business casuals, including a styled v-neck tee-shirt and not one loose end in her Jennifer Aniston hair.
"Your sister's here," Mrs. Vincent said, mischief in her voice.
"I can see," said Rosie.
She and her sister had not spoken in five years, it seemed, ever since Rosie devolved into a chubby, wild teenager and Erin blossomed into a suburban mom, middle school teacher, and now administrator. Her much older sister had done everything right in life, starting with being born pretty and getting a nine-year head start on pleasing their mother.
"You weren't drinking, were you?" Mrs. Vincent asked, eyeing her difficult daughter.
"Mom, I just went for a drive, okay?"
"For four hours? Who were you with? Not Carly or Jenny. I spoke with both of them."
"Nobody. What about Daddy, please? I drove here as fast as I could. How was his EKG this time?"
"Oh, mother," said Erin, in her dry, sarcastic voice as she stood pitched back against the door to the study, "It wasn't normal."
Mrs. Vincent looked at her older daughter who modeled her own good looks from yesteryear.
"It wasn't?" she said. "I thought he said it was."
"Mother, three separate tests all showing irregular heart rhythms? I'd say that wasn't normal."
Rosie looked at her sister who, as such, might as well have been an alien wearing a Bridget Fonda mask.
"Did they do an angiogram like before?" she asked Erin.
Erin, arms crossed and face poised in smug beauty, gave her toad-short sister but a glance.
"Scheduled in the morning," she said.
Mrs. Vincent, meanwhile, was flustered.
"Goodness, was I even listening?" She turned to Erin again. "Well, what about all that about stress cardiomy—"
"Cardiomyopathy? That's not what he concluded either, mother."
"Well, where in the world was my head then?" said Mrs. Vincent, smiling at both her girls. Erin, turning away from her mother, gave Rosie a cool look.
"There were no elevated levels of cardiac enzymes," she said.
Rosie stood looking blankly back. A long moment passed.
"Okay, Erin. I give up. Meaning?"
"Meaning no residual heart damage." Rosie gave her an icy smile.
"But how do they know, if they didn't do an angiogram?" Erin's face fell into cool pause.
"Based on the results sent over from Dr. Phillips' office," she said.
Rosie immediately turned to her mother, grinning.
"Mom, that makes no sense. Dr. Phillips—
"Girls, let's talk about this in the morning. Please. We're all tired."
"Can I call him?"
"Oh, not tonight, Rosie. It's late. He's asleep. He's probably medicated, too. We'll all go visit him in the morning." Rosie glanced over at her sister.
"You're staying overnight?"
"Well, of course she is," said their mother. "This is her house too."
"Mom, I was just asking!"
Rosie's voice boomed across the living room, putting an end to the moment. When she started up the goofy circular staircase, her mother called after her—"Don't go to bed just yet, young lady. We have to talk about your credit cards. You're over on two."
Rosie went to her room and shut the door. Lying on her bed and looking up at the tray ceiling with rope lighting—another goofy feature her mother had insisted on—she thought about her daddy lying alone in a hospital. The one time before, when he went to the emergency room here in St. Claire, they sent him home after a negative stress test. It had to be much worse this time.
She sat up and thought seriously about calling Bridgeport Memorial. To hell with her mother and Erin. Still, she didn't want to wake him if he was already asleep.
Lying back down, she soon felt hostage to this house once again—to all its lavish trimmings: opaque turquoise window sheers, white drum-shade light fixtures, potted palms, tiered tables, and, talk about ridiculous, a 40-inch-high divider wall with framed photographs of the happy family hung on iron rods suspended from a ceiling beam—straight out of Metropolitan Home.
Her mother had spent of a mint of her real estate earnings on this place, only to make the castle all the more lonely. Bathroom accents galore, including antique-brass hand towel trays. Bamboo flooring in the hallways, Brazilian oak in the bedrooms. Five minutes in this place, and Rosie missed the tacky parrot-green polyester curtains in lucky room #7 of the Days Inn down in no-man's-land, offering a sweet view of the dumpster from M & M Waste Co., Fayetteville, N.C. She missed that waffle-iron bed, too. She missed that strange, quiet boy who had been lying on it with her, just hours ago tonight.
She could hear her sister downstairs. Erin, she couldn't help but resent. She had gotten her master's degree in education, online, in less time than it took Rosie to fail out as a sophomore in communications. And with national certification, which Erin just had to let everyone know about, she was now earning top salary in her field as school administrator. If that wasn't enough, at 5'9", 125 pounds, even after had having Ashley Lynn, she was still a long-legged sure-fit for every women's fashion catalog out there. Just enough to make Rosie good and sick.
Lying on her bed, she soon found herself thinking about Thad again. Not that she had ever really stopped. The boy was everywhere, from between her legs to the filling in her tooth, it seemed. As dirty and exhausted as she was, having worn no underwear for the last twenty-four hours—god, how crazy was that?—she was content to lie here wide awake, looking out at the cloudy moon, wondering if he were awake, too, looking out at the moon with her.
Over the next hour, she would try to shower him away, then masturbate him away. But he was like a sprite swinging from one of her optic nerves; she couldn't get him off her mind. She wondered if he even had a cell phone. Or a phone, period. She knew he had no car. How about a toaster? Or even a closet with clothes in it? God, he lived in a dump. It seemed he was the only white boy in St. Claire's one housing project, Towson Gardens. What the hell was he doing there, working in the last of the el cheapochain motels outside town? Whatever his reason, she was working there with him, only to fall in love with him for good since four o'clock this afternoon, after the end of their shift, because he knew word for word just about every one of Lord Byron's poems—God, including "Prometheus"! That, and he had worked as a nurse's aide before a dishwasher. And as something else. Something she still couldn't believe.
Somebody smack her. She was out of her mind, tricked back home by a false alarm, hostage again to a house whose first purpose was to earn 40 percent projected equity, to a sister who was the perfect Ralph Lauren mom, and to a mother who spent thousands on porcelain laminates and skin creams just to try to look like her idol Marilu Henner? Rosie would laugh if she weren't so miserable.
She thought about her next move. She could run away with Thad again. Her credit cards would easily get them all the way to Florida this time. Or maybe she should run away from Thad. She could quit Days Inn, move down to Fairfax, and stay with Carly at the university for the rest of the summer, then go on academic probation in the fall if she begged hard enough. Not the option she wanted, though. She'd just fail out again. But staying in St. Claire all of July and August, here with her mother, with no plan after that, was out of the question.
Rosie shut her eyes. Home was a lonely place.
Mr. Vincent had a "broken heart." Or so the medical condition was called. Formally called "broken heart syndrome," it was a disorder that mimicked the classic heart attack. In his cardiologist's very words, he suffered from "emotional stress."
"Emotional stress?" Mrs. Vincent said late the next morning, Sunday, standing front and center in her husband's hospital room and wrinkling up her nose as if the nice-looking young Yale cardiologist had just put together a ridiculous combination of words, like "underwater real estate." "What about all his chest pains from before? Dr. Phillips never mentioned any broken heart-whatever you called it."
She turned to Erin for an explanation. Bridget Fonda stood nearby holding her father's overnight bag, a canvas with leather trim, Jean Paul Gaultier.
"Well, I can't speak to his regular physician's diagnosis," said the trim, young doctor, showing a shade of smug indifference. "But the symptoms are nonetheless real."
Mr. Vincent, meanwhile, was sitting up in the hospital bed, looking doped-up. Rosie sat on the edge of the bed, her arm around him. For Rosie, the sight of her father pale, unshaven, and wearing a green polka-dot hospital gown was disturbing. He never looked weak and vulnerable in his life. Now, in this silly gown, his arms looked skinny, and his skin blotchy, especially in the daylight coming through the window, the sill of which was lined with flowers from students and fellow faculty.
Emotional stress, explained the doctor, standing at the head of the bed, can stun the heart through extended surges of what are called catecholamines, such as adrenalin or noradrenalin. These elevated hormone levels, when prolonged, act as toxins to the heart, causing symptoms that sometimes copycat those of blocked arteries.
"Mom," said Rosie, "the angiogram was negative. This is good news, okay?"
"Yes, this is reversible damage," said the doctor.
"I know, but I'm puzzled," said Mrs. Vincent.
"Reversible?" said Erin. The doctor nodded.
"Although this," he said, breaking a soft smile, "usually happens to women—"
"To women?" Mrs. Vincent cried out, looking around the room for a sign of a joke.
But the good doctor was serious. Seventy percent of "broken heart syndrome" cases occur in middle-aged and elderly women, he said, a fact that left big, rugged, Nordic-looking dopey Mr. Vincent all the more sheepish and silly in his green-dotted pajamas.
"Oh, Jimmy," said Mrs. Vincent, giving him a light swat on the shoulder, "are you faking this?" Mr. Vincent looked around the room at everyone, yawned, and, right in front of the doctor, patted his wife on the fanny, causing her to yelp out.
"That's the Benzodiazepine," said the doctor. "Makes them…loopy."
"Muscle relaxant," Erin was quick to inform everyone.
"Well, more like a general sedative," the doctor corrected, burying his face in his clipboard. "Any recent deaths in the family?"
"No," Erin answered for everyone.
The doctor stood with his pen raised.
The Vincent women looked at one another, checking, before shaking their heads.
"Robbed? Good lord, no." That was Mrs. Vincent's answer, and a good answer it was. Court appearances, public speaking events—the doctor's list went on and on, all answered no. Then he looked at his patient.
"You're a professor I see."
"Dean," corrected Mrs. Vincent.
"Dean. Any threats from students?" Mr. Vincent's face went suspiciously blank.
"Daddy?" said Erin.
"No," Mrs. Vincent said for him.
"Well, even shock from a surprise party can trigger it," the doctor said.
"Surprise party?" said Mrs. Vincent, her face still full of doubt. Rosie turned to her father.
"Daddy, are you unhappy about something?"
"Yes, Jimmy, are you upset about something you're not telling us about?" asked Mrs. Vincent, making a good show of her concern. But her husband was out of it. He sat grinning around at everyone, one side of his face looking sunburned from where the pillow had left a blotchy mark.
"Initially, we were looking at cardiac arrhythmia," said the doctor.
"Which would have been detected by stress tests," said Erin. The doctor nodded.
"Or, in some cases, through biopsies," he added.
"Which blood work would show," said Erin.
"Yes, that would show presence of abnormal cells."
"Oh, daddy," said Rosie, kissing the balmy man on the cheek, "you'll live forever." She looked up at the doctor. "Daddy's from Dryer County. Dryer County boys have a poet's heart." She curled her arm tighter around her father's arm. "They're sensitive." The doctor gave her an embarrassed smile.
"Oh, Rosie, not now," said her mother.
Despite everyone being so uptight, Rosie proceeded to fuss over her father like a nurse, putting a second pillow behind his head, propping his legs up on a third, handing him his ice water, situating the TV remote by his side—then more pillows, a paperback, a crossword puzzle, and a stuffed pink animal of some kind from his four-year-old granddaughter Ashley Lynn. Mrs. Vincent, Erin, and the doctor all looked on as if seeing a bedside manner for the first time.
"So," the doctor said, "this is good news, okay?"
Again, the angiogram, blood test, and MRI—all were negative. With the exception of mildly irregular heart rhythms likely associated with stress and fatigue, Mr. Vincent checked out and, in a day or two, should be free to go.
"But in the meantime, I want to keep an eye on his catecholamines," he said. Mrs. Vincent, despite this good news, simply didn't understand. Her husband was a 6'3", 230-pound ex-baseball pitcher. He didn't suffer from anything "emotional." Sometimes he got gas and tennis elbow.
While the doctor tried to explain to her once again, with Erin's help this time, about massively elevated levels of noradrenalin, biopsies to detect an injury pattern, and artificial endocrine therapy, Rosie sat doting over her father.
"I'm not gonna make Christmas," he murmured, spilling a smile off the side of his face.
"Ssh, daddy. Don't say that."
"Hush, Jimmy!" said Mrs. Vincent, turning from the doctor. "You're being silly."
For a pamphlet that would help clarify the condition, the doctor led Mrs. Vincent and her informed daughter out to the nurses' station, leaving Rosie alone with her father. For a long moment, she sat looking at him, at his shallow eyes and pointed chin. She took after him, but her looks were better on a man for sure. Mr. Vincent gave her pointed chin an easier home.
"Daddy, is it me?" she asked, leaning forward. "Am I the reason you're upset? My grades?" Her father didn't answer, just lay there looking stoned. Still, she couldn't tell whether he was avoiding answering, or too medicated to answer.
After a moment, she glanced over at the door and said, lowering her voice, "Daddy, I met someone."
"Someone, oh, someone," Mr. Vincent sang out, full-blown loopy from the medication.
"Oh, daddy, you should just lie still," she said, moving his pillow squarely under his head.
"Someone, oh someone . . . just someone for me," Mr. Vincent sang some more, looking through bleary eyes at the girl who adored him.
"Daddy," she said, with another glance at the door, "you'd like Thad. He's quiet, thoughtful. 'Says what he means, and means what he says.'" She cocked her head.
"You always said they're not enough people like that in the world anymore." She leaned closer again.
"He's from Dryer County, too," she said, grinning, "just like you."
"Dryer County," Mr. Vincent said, his voice suddenly clear. "…890 square miles of grazing farmland when I was a boy. Now it's"—He turned and gave his special daughter the side of his closely groomed head, which included a large red ear with string-bean lobes to speak into. "—what, Rosie?"
"Oh, daddy, fill-in-the blank? Now? Please just lie still," she said, again moving his pillow squarely under his head.
"Subdivisions and Citgo signs," Mr. Vincent answered for himself. A second passed.
"Thad or Thaddeus?" he asked, staring straight ahead.
Rosie leaned close again.
"Thad's a better name," said Mr. Vincent, nodding. "Thad's are always successful. There are 19 Thad's in my school. I ever tell you that?" Rosie nodded and moved his ice water closer.
"Remember, Mrs. Hinkle?" she asked. Mr. Vincent looked over at her with eyes that were suddenly steady and clear.
"Your mother's friend with Alzheimer's?" he asked. Rosie nodded.
"That's what Thad did, right here in Bridgeport," she said.
"No, nurse's aide." Her father, his eyes full of wonder, looked off.
"Well, I could sure use one now."
"Before that, he made gravestones," she said.
"Gravestones?" said her father, now looking over at her with suspicion in his eyes. "Well, I could use one of those too."
Rosie again glanced at the door, waiting for her mother and sister to come back. When she looked back down at her father, she saw that he had the remote in his hand, pointed up at the TV. On the bright screen above was a baseball game, and the pitcher in the orange and white uniform was winding up.
"Same two pitches over and over," Mr. Vincent said, rolling his head from side to side. "Sinker, slider. Sinker, slider." Rosie sat close beside him again.
"That's what you were, daddy. Sinker/slider pitcher."
"Minors. Not there," he said, nodding up at the TV. "Need four good pitches in the majors."
Rosie named the two she knew, her father's famous pitches—sinker down and in and slider away—and he named the other two, the two he could never develop—fastball over 85 mph and curve ball on both sides of the plate.
"Four keeps 'em guessing," he said, sighing, pressing his head back into the pillow. A second later, he rolled his head over to her. "Ever see a Bugs Bunny curve, honey?" She shook her head.
"Eephus," he said, grinning, doing a big arch through the air with his hand. Then his smile faded away, and he seemed to shake himself awake.
"Now Rosie," he said, shifting to his squared-off, authoritative voice she had heard all too often, "there's something I want to—
"Oh, daddy," he said, cutting him off, "you should see the cemetery stones he's made. They're beautiful. Like works of art. Just come to the restaurant and meet him first—." Mr. Vincent, interrupted, looked back up at the ballgame.
"So why isn't this fellow still making these…stones?" he asked.
"I don't know, because the business's changed. It's all computerized now." Rosie stood from the edge of his bed.
"Plus he's lost his confidence." Mr. Vincent turned to her.
"Lost his confidence?" She nodded.
"And you're looking to give it back to him?" he asked.
"Daddy," she said, "I'm 22, and I've never even had a boyfriend. That's pathetic!" He rested his head back on the pillow again, his face softening.
"That's because you're special. Something bigger is waiting for you."
"Maybe this is waiting for me," she said. But her father didn't seem to hear. He began pumping the brim of an imaginary ball cap like a handle, going loopy again.
"He volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House," Rosie said. This he heard.
"Volunteers?" he said, looking over at her again.
"Daddy, not all boys are bad."
"Rosie, now I know you're not happy down at that school—"
"Daddy, Thad's inspiring." He turned to her again, even more so than before.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you." After a moment, Mr. Vincent scooted down in his bed like a little boy.
"Well, you sure make him sound interesting."
"Please meet him," she said, taking his arm. Her father lay looking at the ice water on the tray in front of him.
"You bring any peanuts with you, honey?" he asked.
Rosie shook her head, and he glanced around the room, his head dipping around.
"Three days of chicken broth ahead of me. You know that, don't you?" he said, wheeling his head around to her. Rosie nodded and squeezed his arm, and again he looked at his ice water.
"Rosie, you should have been a pitcher," he said, gazing at it. He cranked his head up at her, a smile hanging off his face.
"Old four-pitch Rosie."
"Oh, daddy," she said, leaning down and kissing him on the cheek.
While her father aimed the remote and started changing channels, ending up on "The Price is Right," Rosie stepped over to the window. Under an elegant glass vase filled with red carnations was an embossed gold card that read: To Jim Vincent and family. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. Card in hand, she stood looking out the hospital window, into a blue sky.