Heart

Leona Standish died the other day from complications during heart surgery.  They cut her open and scrambled around in there for hours, but finally the doctors threw up their bloody gloved hands and agreed on the problem.  The devil had no heart.  They sewed her back up nicely, every stitch just so, but with all illusions shattered, she flat-lined and was no more.

It was someone from the hospital that called up to the house to tell her fifth husband, Michael Pink, about the unexpected death.  When he got off the phone, he poured himself some Scotch – the really good stuff that someone had to go to the cellar to grab – and dropped the phonograph needle on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’.  He played it dozens of times, until he fell asleep around sunset and dreamed for hours about another life in Berlin.

____________

When the person from the hospital rang off from calling Michael Pink, they ran their finger along a document, picked up the phone again and punched in a long distance call to America.  On the third ring, a throaty female voice answered impatiently, “I told you yesterday to take me off your list.”

A few minutes later, the misunderstanding was cleared up.  Before ringing off, the caller from the hospital could not resist adding, “I’m sorry to bring you the bad news, Ms. Mitchell.  I know it may not be the right time, but I wanted to say what a huge fan I am of your work.  You were amazing in ‘Last Tango’. I watched it every week and was positively devastated when it was cancelled.”

There was a pause.  Then Cassandra Mitchell said, “Well, I’ll be in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic in a couple of months.  Keep your eye out for it.”

She hung up and rolled over in her bed.  Her ceiling was covered in satin and dimpled with hundreds of tiny satin buttons.  She stared at it for a while, licking her teeth and remembering.  If they’d asked her before peeling back Leona’s chest bones, she could have saved them all a lot of trouble.  She knew the devil didn’t have a heart.

They were girls when they met, two proud little things seated side by side in acting class because their maiden names were the same.  They started calling themselves the Reed Sisters.  Their classmates had other names for them, none of them very nice.   They stuck to themselves, casting cool glances in their wake.

In their senior year, Cassandra was given a mentor who looked her up and down and said, “If I can teach you nothing else, young woman, I hope it’s how to make people love you.  That’s how you build a career.”

Cassandra tucked a cattish smile into her collar and said, “I don’t need love. An actress is obliged to truth only.”

The mentor cackled. “There’s nothing as graceless as a snob, Cassandra. Never mistake poise for frigidity.  At present, the only thing you could act with any honesty is the part of an icicle.”

Over the year, through magic only old souls can manage, the mentor chipped away at Cassandra and remade her.  She still carried herself princess straight because a dancer never forgets, but she stopped sticking her nose in the air and learned to curtsy even when she was the butt of the joke. In the end she had to admit what she was told the first day was true; it mattered to be loved and that had nothing to do with the part.  It was about keeping an affair with the public.  They’d been coming back for more than thirty years.

Poor Leona never learned the lesson. Her mentor left the academy at the end of the year, stooped and greyed and quite convinced he had nothing more to offer.  By graduation day, Leona and Cassandra were no longer the Reed Sisters.  They kept a polite, often useful sort of friendship over the years, but there were no warm, honest hours of the heart between them.  Now Cassandra knew why.

____________

Leona Standish was lying under a light in a grim cement cellar in London a few days later.  A young man with a fastidious bow tie under his white coat was troweling a peach complexion over her grey flesh, when he noticed a pulsing knob on her left ankle.  The tool clattered on the tiles as Lenny Boswell leaped back with a startled cry.

Her face remained quite calm, the eyes glued shut under a fringe of mink lashes.  Everyone said she opened them in the surgery and never closed them again.  He crept to her feet and leaned close, placing a latex-sheathed finger on the knob.  There was definitely a pulse there.

“Oh great,” he said aloud.

This would complicate everything.  He’d already told everyone he knew he’d been assigned Ms. Standish’s eternal facial.  All the old queens at the corner watering hole were livid with jealousy.  They wanted to know everything.  He’d been sworn to send a Snapchat of her boob job to his best friend, which he’d already obligingly done a half hour ago.  Now this pulse.  Protocol meant he’d have to call upstairs and begin a whole investigation.  By the time all that subsided, his holiday would have begun and someone else would finish the project.  Probably Smith, that conceded old cow, and one would never hear the end of his bragging.

Drawing his lips into a thin, homely line, he picked up a scalpel and cut open the foot with one clean slice.  Though he’d been drummed out of medical school, it had nothing to do with any shyness about gore.  In truth, one of his teachers had written that young Boswell seemed to enjoy cutting the skin too much, but then erased the entry with a curious sense that there would be hellish consequences.

When the flesh opened, his eyes boggled at sight of what lay beneath.  It was a heart, smallish for a grown woman, but bright and colorful as if carved directly from a living child’s back.  And despite the reports of her death and despite the fact her blood had been replaced with embalming fluid, it was pumping quite lustily.

“Oh no you don’t,” Boswell said.  He leaned in and cut it right out of her foot.  It was a stubborn heart, the arteries quite lashed to the ankle bones, but he switched blades twice and white knuckled through until it was free.  The thing rested in his hand and would not stop beating.

He rolled his eyes.  “You old bitch,” he said.  “Nice try but I think the story is still mine.”

He took it into the break room and dropped it into his sandwich box.  Then he returned to the dead woman, sewed her foot closed with the care of a high street tailor and troweled that lovely peach complexion heavily over the seam.  It was still seeping a bit, which made it hard to skiff, but he shrugged finally and decided he’d finish her off with stockings.

“Bet you never thought you’d go into the ground in nude hose, did you?” he said cheekily to her.  But then even Boswell, who his closest friends called a bitch, felt a little guilty.  Say what one would about Leona Standish, she had always showed up looking divine.  It would be wrong to put her in nude stockings.

“Never fear,” he said. “I’ll make it right, love.”

____________

That evening he and his closet friends sat down at the table in his flat and they leaned over the sandwich box and marveled that the heart was still beating.

“So it was in her foot the whole time,” one of them said.  He was a sentimentalist and was having trouble not crying.  He was also on his third gin martini.  “Poor old thing.”

“We should eat it,” Boswell said.

The others leaned away in revulsion, but before the night was through, he convinced them it was the only way.  They decided to do it raw and let it slide down their throats like oysters.  Luckily Boswell had a nice bottle of champagne.  Anything else would have been too shabby a send off for such a legend.

The Editing Commission

When she opens the door to let me in her apartment, the actress is dressed in her feeling bad costume.  The only time she wears this cow neck sweater, yoga pant combo is when she’s suffering from another bout of laryngitis.  She’s piled her blond hair into a messy, under the weather knot that is still somehow precious.  Deciding she seems moody, I mentally brace myself.

Padding ahead of me into the living room on perfectly pedicured feet, she says huskily, “You look cute today. I hope I can be helpful. My energist says I’m probably not contagious, but maybe keep your distance. Oh, look. Sofia forgot to take home her cake.”

She curls into her favorite chair as I spread out the script and my laptop on the cocktail table between us.  Her apartment is big for New York, very sunny and peppered with the usual bits of Buddhist kitsch.  Her maid has managed to keep a few plants alive in the window sills.  The place has just been cleaned and smells like sage, orange oil and window cleaner.

“Oh, do you want something to drink?” she asks.

“No, I’m okay.”

I’ve been editing her script for about two months, although editing is her word and not mine.  More honestly, I have been ghost-writing the thing for her.  We meet like this once a week and she gives me some fresh ideas to offset all the progress and I share with her my latest efforts.

I can feel her watching me as I make myself comfortable.  I know from past experience that she is very sensitive to other people’s moods, so to lighten things up, I glance up and make a sort of silly face.  She gives me back a half smile.

“Before we get started,” she says. “I want to talk about something from last week. Have you lost weight? No, it’s your shirt. Never mind.”

“Was that what you wanted to talk about?”

She laughs like its the funniest thing anyone ever said, then abruptly stops, putting a hand to her throat. “I need to remember to take better care of myself,” she says in a soft tone I’ve learned is her version of talking to herself.  “I’ve got to mother me, now.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, my energist says I mother too many other people and that’s why I’m sick.  I’m all out of whack…”

I read something about chakras on a train ride once.  I cannot resist saying, “I can see your blue chakra pulsing from over here.”

This really excites her: “That’s your throat, that’s why I keep getting laryngitis.  Or whatever the Eastern word is for that.”

I nod sympathetically.  She says, “But the long and short of it is, I need to be selfish for a while.  Look after me.”

“That really is important.”

“So back to what I wanted to talk about.”

“Shoot.”

She bites her lip and looks pained. “Can you not say that word? It has a lot of violent connotations for me.  As you might remember, my college roommate was killed.”

“That’s right. It was a car accident, wasn’t it, five years ago? I remember you told me about it once.”

“So, as you can imagine, I like to keep that kind of energy out of the apartment. Especially when it’s just been saged. And even more when I’m in a healing mode.”

“Right,” I say. “Of course.”

She gets up and moves into the kitchenette.  I shuffle through my notes as she puts a kettle on the stove and drops a teabag into an Italian teacup she bought at a fancy little shop on Bleecker.  She showed it to me the first day I came to the apartment.  Teacups and house stuff had been her obsession at that time.  “It’s my grandma stage, I guess,” she’d said with a little snort.

Leaning against the counter, she gives me a long look.  I adjust my glasses and match her gaze, careful to keep my face mild and pleasant, like the smell of posh hand soap.  She lets out a little growl of frustration. I’m starting to think she’s going to sack me.

“The thing is, I’ve been running those lines since last week, and I just don’t think Clara would say those things.”

“Which things?”

“About being molested,” she says. “I think she’d be too embarrassed.”

“Oh.”  I scroll backward through the script and pause when the scene she’s talking about comes up.  “But didn’t you say that if she talked about being molested, it would make her more sympathetic when she kills her husband?”

“Must you constantly hang me up with things I said in the past?” she asks.  She crosses the distance between us and folds her arms on her chest.  It is a very actressy thing to do, I cannot help but think.  “Something you need to understand about me is that I’m like water, okay?”

“I’m sorry. How’s that?”

She turns away, scraping a hand through her hair.  “A river is never the same from one day to another.”

“Oh. It isn’t? I didn’t know that.”

The kettle lets out a cry and she moves to fill her teacup.  I promise myself I will write down all the funny things I would like to say to her later. For the moment, as with every week, I would like to get out of here with my usual check.  Thinking fast, I say, “Did you have any ideas for something else? I mean, from a theatrical perspective, I think those lines were terrific.  I feel like the audience needs a moment like that with her.”

She returns to her chair, thoughtfully bobbing the tea bag up and down by the string.  When she settles, she stares up into the rafters, trying to glean some wisdom from the heavens, it would seem.

“I thought maybe she could talk about being afraid of heights or something.  Like maybe her grandfather once took her to the Eiffel Tower or something and she was afraid, but he didn’t know for some reason, so he kept ignoring her and making her go up another flight of stairs. And then another and another.”

I swallow a giggle, a nervous tick of mine.  “I see.”

“But I don’t want that to make the grandfather seem like a monster.”

“Right, because in act one she says the only person who ever treated her with any real kindness was her grandpap.”

“Right.”

“Perhaps we could make it that this was the onset of his Alzheimer’s and he didn’t know better.  That would make you have conflicted feelings, too, like a little bit of anger but also, logically you know he deserves your pity.”

She’s taking her first sip of tea as I say this and her eyes widen so much I think maybe she burned her mouth.  Instead, she sets the cup aside so quickly some of it spills, and she says, “That’s genius!  Brilliant!”

I start to make some little changes on my lap top.  This may not be as hard as I thought.  “Well, like here, where before we had, ‘Uncle Jake was shoving his fingers home, again and again, even though I kept screaming, “No, Uncle Jake, no!’  We can just replace ‘Uncle Jake’ with ‘Grandpap’ and ‘shoving his fingers home’ with ‘pulling me up the stairs’.  It totally works.”

She stares at me dreamily.  “That’s why you’re here.  That’s why the Universe sent you.”

I drop my gaze, blushing even though I know she’s full of shit.  Someone can’t tell you that you’re basically heaven-sent without it making you feel a little goofy pleasure.  I make myself busy on some other quick edits and pretend not to notice when she slides out of her chair and starts doing light yoga on the flokati rug.  She is deep in child’s pose when I find the first little stumbling block.

“Listen to this,” I venture.  “There’s that moment in act four, when you say that you never let a man touch you until you fell in love with Peter.  But see the equivalent now would be something like you never entered a highrise again. But you see, of course she lives in a penthouse apartment.”

She pops up suddenly, her face pink, her manner much more animated than one would have thought.   “What if we say she was afraid of heights until she met Peter.  Then, because he was an architect – for highrises – she made it her mission to overcome her phobia so she can go to ribbon cuttings or something…”

There is a silence after she trails off.  We’re both thinking it sounds thin.  She gives me a beseeching look then and something about her eyes and the fluffy madness of her ponytail makes me think of those cute dogs that rich people have.  The little lap dogs with bangs and bows. I never do know canine breeds.  Luckily, I become obsessed with remembering the name for that kind of dog before I start to laugh insanely.

Scratching my chin, I say, “Perhaps he designs a big bridge and she knows she’ll have to go to the christening of it or something, so she gets one of those Russian ex-KGB hypnotists to put her under and cure her.  This could all have happened years ago.”

“Is that a thing?” she asks with sudden interest. “Ex-KGB hypnotists?”

“I believe it is,” I say. “I mean, I think someone told me something about that once.”

“That’s fascinating. I could use someone like that. I’ve been meaning to overcome cracking my toe knuckles and to learn how to concentrate better.  Are you thirsty yet? Hey, did you go see that comic you talked about?”

I smile at her. “No, I did not.  But what do you think about that idea? We just knock out the fear of heights thing quickly so we don’t gum up the story.  After she talks about being dragged up the Eiffel Tower, she can say something like, ‘I had hypnosis years ago to overcome my fear of heights, but all the shrinks in the world can’t bring Grandpap back so I can tell him how sorry I am for being so mad at him.'”

She’s shaking her head, with that dreamy look again.  “You really are brilliant.  But find a way to slip in the Russian ex-KGB part. I think that really sexes up the whole thing.”

The sun is starting to slant about an hour later, when we decide to stop for the week.  She has exhausted the energy she sets aside for this project and I am out of quick ideas to bridge her mad ones.  The last part is always a little awkward.  She likes to chit chat in the hall until I am forced to remind her about my check.  Then she acts embarrassed and says, “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.”  Luckily, she is not a hugger, a rarity in her profession.

There are a lot of hateful things I think about her.  In my apartment, I have a little notebook where I write all the cutting things I’d like to tell her when she drives me mad with new changes.  On its ruled pages, I’ve written how I think she changes up her persona, switching gurus and grains and friends, just to avoid ever really getting a glimpse of herself.  I’ve jabbed at her talent, called her a fool.  I’ve doodled pictures of her accidentally farting while going into downward dog.  That one made me laugh until my stomach hurt a little bit.

Then a funny thing happens, when she turns to hand me the check.  She catches a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror and laughs little bit at how her hair has arranged itself.  “Jesus, I look like a Bichon Frise.”  Later, I will still probably laugh, but in the moment, I realize she already knows about herself all the mean things I think I know.  But, also, she knows other things about herself that I cannot imagine.  It gives her about as much dignity as any of us manage. For the moment, as I take the check, I think maybe I can cut her some slack.