If a Heart Beats in the Nursing Home and No One’s There to See It, Did It Ever Really Beat at All? by Michele Finn Johnson

Darla’s camped out in the lobby of Danworthy Nursing Home waiting for her husband to die. It’s not that she wants him to die, but the sight of Marv’s heart peeking out from his sternum, beating at the surface of his chest like fish lips probing the surface of a lake, is enough to keep Darla plopped in a lobby chair instead of bedside. 

“You know you can’t hurt him,” Katie, the hospice nurse, tells her.

She wants to tell Katie to screw off, that she doesn’t know the first thing about who might have hurt whom—Marv’s countless indiscretions—but Darla also knows it’s impossible for Katie to see the true construct of Marv’s heart.

Marv’s diagnosis—Low Cardiac Output Syndrome. Darla had agreed to this unsightly, post-surgical option of open care management, but now to actually see Marv’s real live heart —58 years with this man and all she’d ever wanted was to know that this organ existed—seemed like proof that yes, it was there all along, but the damned thing never had a rat’s chance of keeping up. It was as if Marv’s heart was winking at her—fooled you, fooled you, fooled you—with each sluggish beat.

So Darla waits in the lobby, drinks lukewarm Folgers from Styrofoam cups and feigns interest in a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Detroit skyline. She’s working a section on the left side of the city. Motown. Darla hums the Contours’ Do you Love Me and recalls a lighter version of Marv. It’s New Years Eve, 1962. They’re stupid-young. Marv’s tipsy on whiskey sours, twisting to this song, tamping down his apartment’s shag carpeting while shout-singing. Marv screams, Do you love me, and Darla can’t quite tell if he’s looking at her when he sings this, if he’s asking her a real question. Either way, Darla can’t imagine that a world exists where her answer could ever be “No.”

Darla is snapping another puzzle piece into Motown when she sees a pale, thin-lipped version of nurse Katie approaching. Her own heart starts to palpitate. She can’t help but slip her hand across her breast and self-monitor her current cardiac situation—it’s as if sharks are charging straight through her ribcage. She’s read all of Marv’s cardiologist’s pamphlets. Perhaps she’s over-caffeinated. Or it could be a sign of long-term impairment. An undiagnosed murmur. A gaping heart hole, growing larger. Or maybe, she thinks, this is what hope feels like.

Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Barrelhouse, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as assistant fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her online at michelefinnjohnson.com and  @m_finn_johnson.