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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Widow Maker 

 

I’m resting in a hospital room. I am weak, though I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s nighttime, so I turn on the light. I see that someone is in the bed next to me, and I realize the light might disturb him, so I turn it off. But I can’t make up my mind, so I turn the light on and off a few times, rapidly. The flashing must really disturb him.

 

A nurse comes in and tells me, “We have three beds in this room, and nine beds in this ward. We are crowded with patients.”

 

I have the solution. “May I go home today?” I ask the nurse.

 

I’ve been wanting to go home, and I think I’m strong enough now. I’d be happy to go home, and my absence would ease the crowding.

 

“Let me check,” the nurse says and walks away.

 

I wait for her to come back.

 

“Please turn off the light,” my roommate says.

 

*

 

I take a cigarette, light it and inhale from it. I remember that I quit smoking, but I don’t know how far back that was. It feels like only a couple of weeks since I smoked.

 

I know the ritual: Hold the filter gently between my front teeth. Strike fire with a match or butane device. Widen my lips so as not to dislodge the tobacco stick. Inhale deeply, pluck the stick from my lips with my fingers, exhale once or twice to expel most of the smoke—some always remains in my lungs. Repeat; flick the ash with my thumbnail against the back end of the cigarette. Flick again as the tobacco burns like a fuse. Stub out the butt in an ashtray. Pull another stick from the pack.

 

I haven’t really quit. I’m still a smoker. I haven’t quit at all. I may as well smoke because that’s my lifestyle: to go a half hour or so and light another cigarette. Or to go no time at all and light a fresh cigarette from the tip of my burning cigarette.

 

Then I remember that I quit smoking more than twenty years ago. I’ve been “clean” all this time.

 

*

 

A physician calls me into his office and points to a moving image on his computer screen. I see a vague mass pulsing, surrounded by dark shapes and bright spots.

 

“Here is your lower-right heart valve at rest,” the doctor says. “As you can see, blood goes through the gate, but the valve doesn’t close.”

 

I see a dark tendril waving on the screen.

 

“Here is it again,” the doctor says as he clicks to another view, “when your heart is beating faster, about 140 times a minute.”

 

I see dark fluid collecting and draining in the chambers, and the tendril rising and falling.

 

“Here,” he says, pointing with a pencil, “the valve is working, when you are exerting yourself. Otherwise, look at this artery. We call it the ‘widow maker.’”

 

I see a small black line on the screen, pulsing, unbroken, curving around the beating heart.

 

“It’s not very large,” the physician says, “but when it breaks, that’s it. Lucky for you, it’s still intact. You won’t make anyone a widow yet.”

 

“That’s good to know,” I say.

 

“You won’t make anyone a fatherless child, either.”

 

*

 

When I walk outside, I see that I am only a couple of long blocks from where I live with my wife and daughter, but I discover several small streets within those blocks. I seem to be looking down at a map of the city. On the grid, there are passageways too narrow for cars to navigate. These alleys were built for horse-drawn carriages. The pathways have names I haven’t heard before.

 

I walk into the strange quarter and see an alley leading uphill. The neighborhood looks more open there, and brighter. In the other direction, a street leads down into darkness. Going up looks like it would be strenuous, so I start to head down.

 

As I proceed, I become aware of something burning. Smoke is rising from the pavement. It could be from a trash fire in a subway tunnel. Or it could be from something more permanent—a furnace of sulfur or phosphorus, pumping fumes into the air. I try not to cough but suffer a hacking fit anyway.

 

I don’t collapse, and I don’t lose consciousness. Those pills I’ve been taking every day must be working. My heart is not exploding. I’m not having a stroke. I can see, as soon as the tears leave my eyes.

 

I hear the sound of rain falling around me with sharp taps. But I see no raindrops and feel no water. It is the sound of ghost rain, falling like sand. I’m glad to hear it because the ghost water will dampen the underground fires.

I find a spiral path that twists upward. I can see the top of the highest point of the city. Above that, there is a wide gap before the next level.

 

-Thaddeus Rutkowski