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Picture of Sybil Smith Fritz's Heart

Available Now - Hanna Duston's SisterFritz can't sleep. He knows that someone is watching him. Not staring down at his face or peeping around the curtain that separates his room from the nurse's station, but at the nurse's station itself, where everyones heart is on display. There are three televisions playing nothing but the story of many hearts, sharp white hills that form and dissolve endlessly, marching across a gray background. It is like watching the swell of the ocean far from any shore. The nurses assure him it is just his heart muscle working, sending out some electrical message, but he believes they are not telling the full truth. And he is disappointed, too, to find out that his heart is electric. He had supposed it something more mysterious than that. And how can they confuse him by saying his heart is like an inner tube, with a bubble on it, a bubble stretched to the limit, that might pop? Which is it, a tire or a battery? How could the world have changed so much without him knowing it? It seems to him his heart is a captive. They know its every move. His heart sends messages, they counter with replies. They shoot chemicals into the line in his neck. They put chemicals in the plastic bags that cluster like fruit on the metal pole near his bed. His heart is telling them something but they won't listen. His heart slows and falters, wants to stop. And they reply, no, you can' t stop. You must go on even though worse lies ahead. Be a good soldier.

He is a funny old man, he has strange notions. His daughter, when she visits, smiles at him fondly, combs his white hair, says "don't worry Daddy, I'll take care of it."

Don't worry. She knows what he lived through, the march to Stalingrad and back, bombs, cold, hunger, death, suffering she can't imagine, and she thinks he needs to be taken care of. He wants to die, finally. And what a big fuss they kick up. If he'd died in battle then, in 1942, no one would have kicked up a fuss. He'd have frozen where he lay, been buried by the snow. Now, suddenly, that he is old and useless they are determined that he should live. They will reach into his chest and patch his old inner tube of a heart, they will put him in a wheelchair and stick him in front of a television. Fritz sits up, cautiously. He swings his feet over the side of the bed. No one comes, they are gossiping or eating and they have missed the signals his heart is sending. If he moves quickly he can get to that bank of lights and plugs at the head of his bed. He can unplug every wire, pull them all free. Then perhaps he will die.

His feet hit the cold floor and he moves quickly for an old man, grabbing at any line he sees, pulling at them as if they are weeds. Suddenly there is someone behind him, a man, holding his arms. He has him in a bear hug. He is calling to the others, they are pouring in in their green uniforms, like soldiers of life, their job not to kill but to save at all costs. He begins to shout at them in German, and they don't understand. But he can't speak English, it is as if he never knew the language. Nor can he understand the words they are saying. A-line. Haldol. I-med. D.O.C. Stat.

Before he knows it he is back in bed, his hands tied. Everything is on, all the lights are going again, and now they really are watching him. The man who first came in, the man who held him, is sitting in a chair by the bed. He is writing things down in the green book. Fritz wonders about this man. He is perhaps forty five, compactly built, with odd, blue green eyes. He wears his hair cut short. He seems wiser than the others, calm, slightly burdened.

Fritz has always relied on his instinct, rather than what he was told or what he read. He did some carpentry, he raised some animals, he lived alone, after his wife died. His daughter always told him he should get a television. He refused. He had never wanted one. He'd look at a blank wall first. He lived up in the hills of Hartland, in a small house he had built himself. He always felt himself to be an outsider, living in America. People heard his accent, and wondered. Sometimes they asked. When did you come over? When he told them 1954, they knew. He had emigrated after the war, the war their country had won. They were polite in Vermont, though, never openly held it against him, it was a place that had room for odds and ends of lives.  And he would have gone on that way until he dropped, had he not dropped inconveniently in the grocery store, buying his weekly beans and bacon, buying his flour and coffee and tea. Why couldn't he have fallen feeding his chickens, his strange flock of chickens with their garish plumage and silly ways. Why at the A&P in Windsor?

It had been an almost glorious feeling, the weakness that came over him. The room shimmered, the cans danced, the sounds merged into something like ahhhhhmen, his head filled with light, as if a bomb had gone off, a silent one. As he fell he felt entirely comfortable, the floor was a cushion, it was a cushion which stretched under his weight, seemed to absorb him. He had not expected to see his friends. Johann, Wilhelm, Hans, Friedrich. Yes, maybe his daughter had told him some people died, and saw light, and all these wonderful things, but the death he had seen during the war seemed invariably awful, there was no peace on the faces of the dead, but snarls and grimaces. He had thought soldiers did not go to that light, happy place, and realized it as they died, and were not glad. Because they, more than any, needed it.

But there they were, his friends! He was running towards them through a meadow, they were at the edge, waving their caps and their hands. Shouting his name. They were happy to see him. They had thought he was dead. Before he got to them he tripped. His feet were tangled in the grass. He kicked and kicked trying to get them free, crying with frustration. It was the bubble on his heart. It had grown secretly, till it interrupted the electricity. The heart had sped into a new rhythm, he had dropped at the A&P. The soldiers of life had come running with their air raid siren, insisted that his heart come back. They had taken him to this vast new place he'd never seen, this hospital. When he woke and said he wanted to go home they told him no. No! How could they tell him that so simply. He was an American now, he had rights. But his daughter explained that he didn't have the right to leave, because he might die. And he was not to be allowed to make that decision.

***

He must have slept. His daughter is now sitting where the male nurse had been. She is reading a magazine and he watches her for a moment. She is not pretty, but no one in his family had ever been. They were farmers, squat, square people. Their noses were large and broad, as if to help them pull in air for the heavy work they did. Their teeth and jaws were powerful, like the jaws of cattle. Their bodies were thick, like trees. The woman on the front of the magazine is pretty. Americans put too much weight on that. He'd used to suffer for his child, his only child, that she had grown up never knowing what it was, to be beautiful. Now she is old enough so it doesn't matter. She's married, has two children, her life is good. She looks up suddenly, and sees him looking at her.
" Daddy," she says, "You're awake!"
"Yah."
She comes over and takes his hand and smoothes his forehead. "You gave them hell last night, hey?"
"Yah. I vant to go home."
"Daddy, you know what I told you. They think you are depressed, and that's why you don't want them to do surgery. They say they can fix your heart."
"Depressed. What is all this about depressed? What if I vas one hundred years. Would they still say I vas depressed?"
His daughter laughs. "Probably. They have a new diagnosis now too. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They say you have it. From the war. They say they can treat that too." Fritz cannot reply to this. Stress. Depressed. Trauma. All these words they think up now for what happens to people when they suffer. They want to make them not suffer, but that is not possible. Suffering is like the sand in an hourglass. It is a quantity that must sift through your soul before it is over. That was one reason Fritz liked Vermont. Every winter reminded him that cold could not last forever, but also that it could not be hurried. All his life he has let his suffering be. While he worked, while he ate, while he fed the animals. He would feel a movement from his heart to his belly and know that more sadness had passed through him. This was the last bit falling now. "How's Pompy?" he asks his daughter. Pompy is his last rooster, a Buff Orprington, with ruffs of feathers on his feet, a great curving striped tail. Pompy lords it over a few Striped Wyandottes, a dozen Blue Andalusians, some
Buff Minorcas and Silver Leghorns, and one lone bothered Banty. Fritz takes the eggs and when they do manage to hide a clutch he gets odd hybrid birds, not the pure strains he used to sell. " Pompy's fine," she says, with the emphasis on fine that shows she's
irritated by his concern for his rooster.
"The kids?" he says, to make up.
"Jimmy is on the football team, Betsy is playing hockey What with the garage it makes for a lot of wash."
His daughter's husband owns a garage. Now he can ask about the cat. The cat is either Badboy or Goodboy, depending on its behavior and Fritz's mood. It is a Tom, Fritz refused to get it fixed, as they lyingly call it. Sometimes the cat backs up against the wall, and looking Fritz in the eye make a slight insolent motion of its tail and lower back, releasing a spurt of scent. Fritz doesn't mind the smell, he's smelled worse, but his daughter wrinkles her nose every time she visits. Badboy's ears are tattered and his jaw is big and hard from a long series of abscesses. Fritz holds him every morning, while he has his coffee, and rubs his head and talks to him. GoodBadboy listens better than Pompy, who struts around nervously like a short General, ever ready to prove himself by nailing a handy hen. Fritz, when he's sad, tells Goodboy about the war. He tells him about the trucks full of wounded, how they ran out of gas, how the drivers went ahead on foot, how the wounded congealed together into a solid wedge of icy cloth and flesh and blood. Some crawled away and he saw them, frozen in the acts of crawling, one hanging by his coat from the tailgate of a truck. He passed them all. The sky was always gray and the sun was as cold as a coin. The road had thawed and refrozen and thawed and refrozen, in places the bodies of the dead were part of the frozen road, displayed like wax figures through the ice. Goodbadboy purrs. In his purring Fritz hears a reply better than any psychiatrist could say. It is the way of life, it is the way of death; death, life, bad, good, no matter; it passes, it passes, it passes.

***

The hazel eyed man is back that night, and Fritz thinks to look at his name pin. John Corliss, RN. John moves about softly doing this and that. Fritz still has his hands tied so he can't pull out his lines. These things they are doing to him are beginning to irritate him beyond measure. He can feel himself stuck all over, the holes they have made or the holes they are using are itching and burning and throbbing. John will say nothing if Fritz doesn't.
But he's the only one who looks like he's lived, the rest are like babies, silly American babies who eat pizza and watch TV and have no idea of how bad the world has been and can be.
"John," he says.
"Fritz," says John, surprised. "English today?"
"Yah."
"How are you?"
"I'm going crazy."
" Well, it's a short walk," he says, and laughs. Fritz doesn't get his joke. "Don't worry," he adds, "the shrink will be in to see you tomorrow."
"Shrink?"
"Psychiatrist."
There is a silence then and John continues, "he will say whether or not he thinks you are in your right mind, and whether we have the right to do surgery against your wishes."
"Gif me sometink now," Fritz suggests.
"Something for pain?"
"No, to make me die."
John laughs. "I can't do that."
"Yes you can. You know how. I'll give you money."
"How much money?"
"Three hundred dollars."
John laughs. "No Fritz, I'll give you morphine. I'll never kill anything again."
"What do you know of killing?"
"Lots. I was in Vietnam."
Fritz remembers Vietnam. He was glad he only had a daughter, his Anna, and no boys to send to war. He thought the boys sent there had it good. They had helicopters and doctors and food. When the United States gave up it did not leave them there. But he sees now from John's face that John has seen the things that make it hard to believe in the world. Neither of them lost any visible parts, the parts they lost were inside. The parts they lost had left empty spaces and the empty spaces were inhabited by the dead, who did not want to be lost entirely. Not just friends, enemies too. Women, children, horses; the poor million ghosts of horses no one mourned. "War," Fritz says, and with that word the last bit of suffering leaves him. In that word he says all he ever needed to say.
"Yes. And I know about your war too. I read a book once, called Stalingrad. It helped me a lot, to put things in perspective."
"But I was on the other side," Fritz whispers.
"We're all soldiers. Do you think I'd hold that against you, that you're German? Heck no. You were just a kid. I was just a kid. And, I think we should let you die if that's your choice. The surgery is risky anyway. I just want you to be at peace."
"I am at peace. Now."
"What does your daughter think?"
"She will let me decide."
"Well then, just tell the shrink that. Just tell him. And don't do anything crazy."
"Yah, easy for you to say. You drive me crazy and then you call me crazy."
John laughs. He shoots a liquid into the IV. Fritz feels warm and in minutes all the irritation stops. He is okay then, floating in the white room. He feels drunk and silly, but it is pleasant. Whenever he opens his eyes he sees John there, in a chair. John's eyes shine in the dark like the lights on all the machines. He fought in a hot place. Fritz would like to ask him what death is like in a hot place, the bodies must stink more. The heat of the fires from the bombs must not be welcome. There would be insects everywhere, buzzing and biting, waving their antennae and biding their time.
"John?"
"Yes, Fritz?"
"Where do soldiers go when they die? "
"I don't know."
"Yes, but what do you tink?"
"I think they are reincarnated."
"I don't know this word."
"Your soul finds another body to live in. Or maybe a tree or an animal."
"If I said that they would say I vas crazy."
John laughs. "What would you like to be? If you came back?"
Fritz thinks. "I would like to be a tree. A big tree on the plain between the Volga and the Don."
"That's a nice thought."
"Don't tell anyone," Fritz cautioned.
"I won't."

***

The psychiatrist was talking with Anna outside the door. Fritz had just spoken to him. It had been a simple conversation. Fritz had said that he was old, worn out, he didn't have the will to go on. He wasn't afraid. Yes, he was sad, but he'd been sad a long time. Yes, he'd been happy sometimes. No, he was not afraid the nurses were poisoning him, he just couldn't eat. The food clogged in his throat. No, he didn't need to see the chaplain. He could talk
to his daughter, and to John. When his daughter came in her eyes were slightly damp, but she was smiling. She kissed him. He didn't say anything.
"They pronounced you sane," she said.
"Ah," Fritz said.
"They asked me what I wanted."
"And you told them..."
"You could decide."
"Good girl."
"They'll move you onto the regular floor. They'll take out all these tubes."
"Ah."
"I'm going to bring the kids, and Fred. "
"That vould be nice."
"Jimmy will take the chickens."
"Good Jimmy. He likes them. Vat about badboy?"
"I can't keep him inside Daddy!"
"Don't you castrate him!"
"Daddy, you are such a stubborn old coot."
"I'll give him to John."
"Who is John?"
"The night nurse."
"Oh yes, I've met him. He asked me all about your life. I don't know if he wants a beat up old tom cat though."
"I'll give him."
His daughter rolled her eyes. "I'm sure he'll be thrilled."

***

But, as it turned out, the cat settled the problem on his own. He must have missed Fritz. One morning he didn't show up for his bowl of Friskies, and they never saw him again. No one told Fritz, but he knew. He was out on the regular floor by then. He had no tubes, and he was going to his daughter's house soon, they said. They drew the line at him going home, alone. He slept a lot. He found, to his amazement, that he could no longer walk. He did not feel bored in the slightest. His mind played happily, now that it could ignore his body. His body waited, a cooling sack of viscera and bone. Goodboy came to him. Fritz woke to a warmth flooding his chest, and the thrumming of Goodboy's purr. He reached up and felt the cat's soft fur, he rubbed a tattered ear.
"Goodboy," he said.
Suddenly it seemed John was standing there, by his bed. He had on a khaki uniform and a soldier's cap. He looked sad. Fritz did not like to part with Goodboy but he knew John needed him, to tell his secrets to. He grasped the cat's solid, tolerant body, and held it out to John.
"Goodboy," he said.

***

And later the nurses comforted Anna. She felt bad the family hadn't
been there. They assured her he was peaceful, not fighting. And he must have thought they were there, because he smiled and held out his arms and said
"Good-bye."

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