Jarred Hearts

Jessica Hollander


Her father asked her the time. Asked her then kept walking not that Annie wore a watch when she wasn't working. Knowing minutes slowed things down and this wasn't a space she'd linger in. Another decade might not bring money or someone she could stand looking at more than a year but maybe she'd find peace as the end came nearer in seeing this was her life and she could stop reconfiguring. Even wrinkles she could live with. She and Elise made a game at the post office counting them between customers. She told her boyfriend Gerry it's almost like she hopes for more. As she brushed her teeth he walked behind her and pulled her skin toward her hairline like a skin lift. "Better off having dips in the landscape," he said, dropping her face back to middle age. She didn't want a face so pretty you could ski down it.

Her father gave her a cheap deal and a new red porch sealed it: she'd agreed to live next door for the time being. She was transitioning, per usual, and she'd nothing against her father these days—he was harmless with her mom dead and no one to patch things he tore open. So he'd stopped tearing. No telling Annie to cover up and walk straight; no shoving her around then saying it wasn't abuse because he didn't make fists. But she didn't know the mosquitoes. She surrounded herself with candles not letting insects chase her inside while she waited for Gerry to come home from his construction. He was like a boy with blocks only bigger. Up high and small in a giant truck with a claw catching beams and frames and chunks of things. He offered to take her once, site-seeing. But scaffolding made her nervous. "Show me something finished," she said and winked almost believing it a way to keep him around. He wanted to impress her and she wanted that, too. Fall in love with him before one of them split. Give her a reason to put her heart in a jar and watch it beat.

Her father circled the block and came toward her again. She'd spread a towel on the green plastic chair and now she picked loose the threads. Bone-thin legs stuck out his running shorts and a windbreaker parachuted. His unsteady stride was something to see. Proud-angled knees. Gerry didn't know he was her father, just figured him an old southern landlord with opinions about his tenants. He'd been staying with Annie most nights for a month before she let her father see his person, though she figured her father had seen Gerry's truck and mud prints up the drive. "Weed killer!" Her father had walked across her lawn with his loose muscles and shaky voice, pointing to the fence separating their backyards where a line of dried shoots spread between slats. "I kill it, you weed it."

Gerry shrugged. "Why not?" he said, not looking at Annie because it wasn't her who gave the invitation. Staying here nearly rent-free—sure, he could weed some weeds. Her father grinned. He'd been waiting for a man to come along. The two men walked to the fence and examined the bent dead plants while Annie sat on the porch steps and picked her heel calluses. She wouldn't go close to her father's house herself knowing how he poisoned. For bugs, mold, crab grass; she saw trucks pull up, the men with backpacks, sprayers, and masks. An airborne virus had killed her mom—sickly anyway, and spineless—and Annie imagined the house now sterile and bleached, each room a different chemical warding off death. But for Annie, the older she got the more dirt she let in a house. She wanted an organic relationship with death, something pleasant and slow-building: wrinkles gathering like friends.

Her father reached her drive again. He hadn't come much closer since she'd moved in six months ago. "Well what's the time?" he asked.

"You training for something?" Beneath his blue baseball hat: those wrinkles, those pits.

"The war," he said. Probably he was part of the militia, a trapdoor in his living room hiding a dozen men with rifles. He was once a pillar of this small Alabama town. Annie had suffered handshakes with wide smiles; she saw his young face still at the DMV, his chin clean-shaven and his hair side parted. He'd have no problem nuking the world.

"Thought you'd lost your politics," she said.

He shook his head and looked heavenward. "Those shadows."

"You mean that cloud?"

"Death's sailing on it," he called back. "Can't you see his stick?"

She looked at the storm cloud. "You afraid to die, Dad?"

He'd gone too far down the street to answer. She'd invite him to visit the post office someday. Show his face to Elise as evidence that hard-driving made you drive harder. He'd probably outlive them by decades.

Gerry's truck rumbled down the street like a small plane displacing air. Good thing no kids lived around here anymore. Once a squirrel's tail got stuck beneath Gerry's tire, and Annie hadn't looked away as she once would have. The squirrel ran to the curb with a flat tail dragging.

Gerry pulled onto the gravel and she walked toward its vibration in flip-flops wanting to stand by the grill when it shuddered off. She spent her youth thinking she hated trucks. Her skin was too smooth then; she'd no place to pool the aggravation. Since then it seemed she'd left bits of herself in other decades: a chest in a wool sweater, a finger with a ring on it, a foot in a high heel shoe; she'd placed her face on a mantel somewhere and forgot it when she'd fled. Gerry's clothes were dirt-streaked; his boots made clouds. They watched her dad round the block again.

"Long Gone thinks he's seen death," Annie said. Gerry had named her father Long Gone due to his appearance, and that's what she called him in Gerry's presence.

"Course he has." He put his arm around her and she settled into his shoulder's rough dust. "It chasing him now?"

"Probably he's got cataracts," she said. "I hope when I get cataracts they're shaped like something pleasant."

"A heart? A flower?" He held his chin so his bristly beard stuck out. "My mug?" He looked not unlike Satan. She grabbed his chin hard to chase away the image.

They waved to Long Gone who walked straight past this time and said nothing. "Hey, there!" Gerry called, but no answer from her father. Gerry hadn't gotten around to weeding. And Annie hadn't once cooked for her father or laid out meds; she hadn't set foot in his house even when he asked her over most Sundays. Probably he found both of them disrespectful, though he hadn't said anything about it to Annie in a long time, nor any of the other things he'd once called her—lazy, stupid, slut.

She followed Gerry to the porch and extinguished the candles, blocking her breath against the smoky spiced aftermath. She let Gerry lead to the bedroom and was glad for his heft, the way his arm around her neck felt like choking.

No sign of her father for a week. Rain threatened. A new crease near her left eye was almost a wrinkle; she showed Elise in the post office bathroom. At McDonald's one night, Gerry stacked three quarter pounders and explained weight distribution on I-beams. Annie stood evenings on her porch watching her old house cloud over, not caring at first. Then the silence wrapped her like a wool blanket.

Crickets stopped squawking; no mosquitoes whined. From her green porch chair, she tracked her father's chimney line against the darkened sky. Finally a distant sound like some toy thing bumping curbs. She didn't meet Gerry in the drive. He climbed from his truck with his tanned chest bare, his work shirt slung around his neck.

"Wait." She nodded at her dad's house. "Peek inside. See if you see him."

He looked the dark house over and wiped his cheeks with his shirt sleeve. "Long Gone's our responsibility? Hasn't he got some family?"

"Be a neighbor," she said.

His boots puffed dust as he walked up her old steps, rang the bell, peered through the window. Then he broke it like a criminal and an alarm rang, breaking the silence like a blast.

Annie ran barefoot from her porch as he disappeared inside. Prickles and driveway rocks caught her feet, that skin not hardened like it should've been. She hissed Gerry's name through the broken glass but he didn't come. The inside draft smelled like sulfur. The humidity made her feel flattened. She waited off the porch on her father's lawn wondering what he had in the house these days valuable enough to justify an alarm. His grass was softer than hers from the poison. She imagined her father's body on bleached sheets sprawled like something sacred. She would've liked to have seen it.

The police came soundless with blinking lights. Two bulky, stiff-hipped officers climbed from the car.

"My boyfriend went to check on him." She talked loud in case Gerry had gotten into some chest or drawer in the meantime. "The man who lived here was old."

The officers shook their heads. "Call a professional next time. It isn't a sight for most people."

Annie waited on the lawn while they went in the same low window Gerry had broken. The alarm stopped, and the street thickened again. An ambulance arrived silently. The front door opened and an officer led Gerry outside with a red and black afghan covering his broad shoulders like a shawl.

"I found him in the living room," the officer told Annie. "Talking to a shadow." He led Gerry to the front of the ambulance, and Gerry stumbled on the big step.

"Where's he going now?" Annie asked.

"Psychiatric." The officer looked at his watch. The minutes leaped from it like sparks. Her father's body came out prone beneath a white sheet so she didn't know what had happened to his week-dead wrinkles. She put her fingers on her cheeks.

"You shouldn't have gone in," she told Gerry through the ambulance window. "You should've asked first." The afghan had been hers. Gerry didn't look at her.

"Want to come along?" the officer asked, but she shook her head. She'd never see Gerry again—no big deal, though she would've liked to leave him with something: a stomach, a lung, a neck. Whatever haunted him now would be something from her dad.

The officer yawned. "Someone'll tape it up in the morning."

The ambulance and cop car pulled onto the street with no lights or siren. It's no real tragedy when a pillar disappears. Her feet itched from the grass; she felt its poison climb her ankles. She waved from the lawn, and the street fell quiet.

Glass crunched as she climbed into the living room. Shadows draped furniture familiar like a dream's familiar. A doorknob looked like a fist. Two bones curved on the base of her father's recliner. Her foot caught a piece of shattered window glass, and pain shot through the spine of it. Hair hung from a curtain rod—she'd had such long hair once.

The sulfur smell got in her skin. She could've served him one dinner. She could've told him run faster; it's coming; she'd seen it. Above the mantel hung a picture of little Annie in flower-stitched overalls, her skin white in the streetlight. A dark foot rested on the coffee table. Her heart beat on the couch, and she stood there watching it.